Monday, June 01, 2009

"Famous UU" revisionism

Oh, how we love our lists of Famous UUs. They stroke our egos. They remind us of how influential past UUs once were in society at large, and they kinda sorta suggest that either we still could be, or at least still have the moral rectitude to deserve to be, just as influential today. We enjoy basking in their reflected glory.

Such lists are often topped by John and John Quincy Adams, two of the four (arguably five, if you include Thomas Jefferson) Unitarians who have become President of the United States. While President, Adams the father signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which declared that the US is not a Christian nation, and which was unanimously ratified by the Senate. After stepping down as President, Adams the son argued and won the Amistad cases, freeing a shipload of mutinous African slaves. That's some mighty righteous UUing, right there.

But a disturbing quality I find in UU hagiography is that it often revises the portraits of our saints to more closely resemble who we would have liked them to be than who they actually were. For example, we like to claim the Adamses as our co-denominationalists, but when you look at them more closely, their religion wasn't one that many of us would want to claim as our own. Yes, they were accomplished politicians and did some things in that field that we still admire today, but few UUs today know that they were also devoutly religious, not in any modern "UU" sense but in the old New England Congregationalist mold, and that John Quincy Adams in particular produced a fairly weighty oeuvre of religious writing that included a new metrical translation of the Psalms for singing in church to replace the older Bay and Scottish psalters.

Here's a stanza from his setting of Psalm 14 that I had to find on a Baptist church's website, because it doesn't appear anywhere in Singing the Living Tradition or Singing the Journey. I think it's obvious why not:

The fool denies, the fool alone,
Thy being, Lord, and boundless might,
Denies the firmament, Thy throne,
Denies the sun’s meridian light;
Denies the fashion of his frame,
The voice he hears, the breath he draws;
O idiot atheist! to proclaim
Effects unnumbered without cause!

When we dismiss and ignore, rather than engage and wrestle with, this sort of challenging material from our denominational past, do we gain or lose?

I think we lose when we bury and forget those parts of our religious heritage we can no longer affirm. They can still serve as a reminder of the crucible of issues that made us who we are today, and help us frame issues that each generation needs to confront afresh in order to pursue a complete, rigorous and truly "free and responsible search for truth and meaning".


At June 1, 2009 at 9:20:00 AM EDT, Blogger Bill Baar said...

When we dismiss and ignore, rather than engage and wrestle with, this sort of challenging material from our denominational past, do we gain or lose? Lose, badly lose... we really ought to be looking at what we were preaching prior to 1968 too, and see what's been kept, and what's been tossed.

I have a feeling pre 68 UUism may feel just as alien as what JQA wrote much earlier.

At June 1, 2009 at 10:29:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

What sorts of things in particular were we preaching prior to 1968 that we have tossed but perhaps shouldn't have?

At June 1, 2009 at 1:26:00 PM EDT, Blogger ogre said...

Does this really surprise?

If we believe in the idea of ongoing revelation, and in semper reformandum, then over time, all of our heroes will age and yellow a bit... and we'll see them as the narrow, imperfect human beings, trapped in part in the amber of their time, that they--and we--all are.

You can criticize Jesus, Mohammed, Gandhi, too. And should.

Were these UU figures automatons simply repeating their views today, in the context of today, rather than in their time, yeah, we might be less enthralled.

So? Their glory is contextual.

Depriving them of their proper context and then beating on them as bad UU heroes is just silly; post-modernism gone rancid.

In fact, seeing that they were great and remarkable in their context provides a clue about how to be a good UU now (despite being aware that, in the end, we'll all be deconstructed and criticized for not foreseeing and meeting the ethical insights and standards of 2209).

Their religion's fine--their beliefs aren't what many of us would claim.

That's progress. Incremental, painful... progress.

At June 1, 2009 at 1:59:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

You misunderstand my objection, ogre. I don't object to seeing them as they actually were; I object to willfully overlooking the ways in which they differed from us.

At June 5, 2009 at 9:53:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Rev. Perpetua said...

Can you site evidence of us ignoring Adams' faith and perspective as part of embracing him as a religious forbearer? It's one of the things I'm most proud of claiming lineage with -- which is not to say I would take up all of his views, but I'm particularly inspired by the fact that he was a man of deep faith, grounded in wrestling with Biblical prophecy and law as he navigated his role in the emerging government of this nation. He kept the experience of his life in conversation with the eternal truths present in scripture, which is still a proud part of our tradition today, and as ripe for many interpretations as ever.

At June 5, 2009 at 7:59:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Rev. P., I share the inspiration that you draw from the Adamses' approach to their faith. However, as an example of what I am talking about and a partial answer to your question, I am a lifelong UU who had been unaware until now, when I found out quite by accident, that John Q. wrote a metrical psalter for use as a hymnal. My ignorance may be my own fault, but I have never seen one of his psalms in any UU-published material, even though I have seen his name invoked countless times. I only recently stumbled across his Psalm 14 by happenstance here (pdf file), on a Baptist website. I think the fact that we know his name, and those of many other "Famous UUs", so much better than the specifics of their actual religious work points to a deficiency in the way we do our "Famous UU" hagiography. We tend only to point to their famous names to justify who we already think we are. Instead it would be so much more powerful, as you correctly observe, to let the strength of their past religious experience and understanding, even if some of it may seem archaic or culturally constrained in our own time, teach us how to challenge, strengthen, deepen, expand and apply our own.

At June 9, 2009 at 1:45:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Rev. Perpetua said...

Definitely agreed, Fausto. It seems to be part of a larger cultural issue of lack of attention to the deeper histories that inform our present. Which of course makes it incredibly to chart a meaningful course for our future. Just finished a meeting to plan some sermons and presentations for next year to get at this in our congregation. It's an uphill battle, which of course is something John Adams knew a lot about...

At August 12, 2009 at 2:33:00 PM EDT, Anonymous politywonk said...

Great post, Fausto!

But let's not damn the whole people of the movement for what is essentially a polity problem. We have unitary governance overseeing the training and oversight of ministers. We delude ourselves that ministers can be trained to use a theology-neutral "tool kit," when in fact, what comforts so many of us alienates many others.

Our forebears had an equal theological diversity. The debates between Channing and Priestley Christians were just as fierce as those between the Transcendentalists and the Christians. We would need to study our history and heritage with much more depth, breadth and humility if we were to recover the wealth of who they were. But it might illuminate who we are now.

At October 9, 2009 at 6:20:00 AM EDT, Blogger kimc said...

Jefferson referred to himself as a Unitarian in a letter. Doesn't that make him a Unitarian? He was saying that there weren't enough Unitarians living near him to support a church, therefore he must content himself with being a Unitarian alone. We figure that makes him a Unitarian.


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