Thursday, June 18, 2009

Shame, scorn, and the UU quest

Imagineering Faith was Rev. Christine Robinson's sermon at First Unitarian in Albuquerque last Sunday. I find it a remarkable sermon, because it examines feelings common to many UUs, and provides the first sound explanation for those feelings I've ever encountered.

As someone who was brought up in a Unitarian household (both parents became Unitarians) I am a rare bird in most any UU congregation. At least three-quarters of American UUs came to it as adults. In my own congregation of about 170, there are eight of us UUs from early childhood.

The path from being a UU child to being a UU adult is not necessarily a smooth one. Lots of our Sunday school classmates wandered off in other directions, and most of us rediscovered the religion for ourselves when we were grown. A congregation of questers and doubters, most of whom do not agree on the same definition of anything, is not likely to produce kids who ask no questions but move forward into its adult ranks.

But back to Christine Robinson's sermon. Why is it meaningful? And what's this about shame and scorn? I invite you to read it for yourself, but in a nutshell: Robinson suggests that shame is the feeling that something is wrong with you. Not that you have done something wrong: that's guilt. Shame is about who we are. Shame damages us forever.

Scorn, says Robinson, is the kind of rhetoric used to engender shame in another person. She goes on to observe that the kind of political commentary enriching Rush Limbaugh and others of his breed uses scorn as its weapon.

Robinson goes on to point out how, as children -- whether we were active UUs or simply the kind of children who would grow up to be UUs -- we were likely to be questioners, having doubts, not fitting into the sets of beliefs that those around us seemed to hold. For our friends or for most of the adults we knew, their faith was totally natural -- but we didn't have it. And what those transactions induced in us was shame.

Shame breeds anger. And that anger in many UUs and religious "liberals" is all around us. Attributing it to shame, and attributing our shame to having to deal with a world of faith when we ourselves did not have faith, seems to me to be a masterly understanding of many UUs. And that anger against people of faith -- and even people who simply use the language of (usually) Christianity -- is a corrosive element in many of our congregations.

A few months ago, my minister was absent one Sunday and his stand-in a) wore a stole over his suit, b) used the words "God" and "faith," c) prayed, d) spoke a benediction at the end of the service, and e) lifted his hands, palms out, when he gave that benediction. Some members of the congregation were unhappy; one or two were furious and rude. As my congregation's unofficial intern, I subsequently apologized for the rudeness he encountered. He said, "We must learn to be gentle with one another, and we have not always been so."

UU-ism has changed a lot in my lifetime. When I was in school, Unitarians were often WASP-y intellectuals, mirroring our early New England spiritual ancestors. Newcomers were generally escapees from orthodoxy, like my parents -- one from an Irish Catholic family, one from a Scots Presbyterian family. They admired and embraced the tradition and were relieved to have left their families' certainties behind.

Converts anywhere carry their own baggage, though. No matter what discovered universe you embrace, you are also an ex-something. Early 20th-century religion went deep into the personalities of its children, so mid-century UU congregations had large numbers of ex-Lutherans, ex-Catholics, ex-Presbyterians; being an "ex" was significant to them. Across the U.S. there was also a significant cohort of European Jewish immigrants, prosperous, well-educated, often atheists, and generally wary and in shock. Often the significant characteristic Unitarians shared with each other was the sense that they didn't belong anywhere else. This nourished anger too.

So it's no surprise to find, in the old 1964 blue hymnal, shame and anger institutionalized. I periodically return to the blue hymnal for readings no longer in broad use, but what I find are works by apologists like him who wrote "Let us cherish the state that her mighty ends may be achieved." There is little worship and praise and exaltation; there is sackcloth and ashes and guilt. Shame is just down the road. So is anger.

So how have we changed in that half century? People coming in the door now may be in a mixed marriage seeking a place to bring up their children to value both traditions. Equally often, these parents will come from families virtually without religion. They are not escaping from generalized oppression. So what is their anger about?

Here's where Robinson makes an interesting leap from political culture to religion. The Limbaughs, she notes, have used scorn as their significant weapon. We -- their opponents -- are not just wrong, we are bad. We are not just bad, we are evil. Rhetoric leaps high as the speakers' ratings must; without high ratings, these entertainers will wither and die, and shock gives high returns on investment. So the language of scorn and hatred escalates. The wounds go deeper into everyone's hearts, and even people who are not out on a theological limb feel shamed and the anger spreads.

I think we UUs have gone wrong by not acknowledging anger that lies among us and doing something about it. Our hymn We Are a Gentle, Angry People for some unfathomable reason celebrates this anger ... but does nothing with it. It simply states that we are angry, one of the most impotent statements you can imagine.

How much better off we would be, and how much better people we would be, to get to the root of this anger and do something with the knowledge. I like Robinson's sermon immensely, because she does confront the reality, she examines its meaning, and she begins the discussion.

Christine Robinson's pic comes from the Albuquerque UU website, and the offending stole is shown at the UniUniques website.

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