Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Urgent for Twitterers: Iranian Solidarity

Courtesy of Lizard Eater, via Facebook. I don't tweet, but if you do:

For those who tweet: Change twitter profile to location: TEHRAN, time zone: GMT+3.30. Iran govt hunting 4 bloggers. If we're all Iranians harder 2 find them.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Famous UUs, Part Deux

If it is frustrating to see “Famous UUs” sometimes revered within our little denomination more for their fame itself than for the religious lessons they can help us remember, it is equally gratifying when one of them is honored outside the denomination for his or her forthrightly religious witness.

That’s why, this morning, I almost bounced with glee this morning when I sleepily turned to the editorial page of The New York Times and found an editorial tribute to the not-quite-so-famous-these-days Universalist and Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King, whose statue was removed from Statuary Hall in the US Capitol this week to make room for Ronald Reagan’s. An excerpt:

…King was a big deal in the 1800s, but hardly a Californian alive knows or cares. The vote in the California Legislature to replace his statue was all but unanimous.

…He was a Unitarian preacher, and an amazing one at that; spellbinding, said people who heard him. He spoke up for slaves, for the poor, for union members and the Chinese. Most memorably, he spoke up for the Union, roaming the state on exhausting lecture tours, campaigning for Abraham Lincoln and a Republican State Legislature, imploring California not to join the Confederacy. He succeeded, but he did not live to see the Union victory. He died of diphtheria in 1864, age 39.

“He saved California to the Union,” this paper wrote, quoting Gen. Winfield Scott.

…Here, then, a final toast to the worthy but obscure. To the frail patriot Thomas Starr King.

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".