Saturday, August 30, 2008

Race, Gender, and Social Location

And as I sit here slack-jawed over McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential Running Mate, it occurs to me just how successfully he has distracted MY attention from the Democratic National Convention, and its message of "John McCain: More of the Same." Can't help but wonder whether this is just a tactic to take the spring out of the Democratic bounce, and that sometime next week there will be a graceful, Harriet Miers style withdrawal and Mitt will be back on the ticket after all.

Of course the Democrats are "on the right side of history." But if all we can talk about is the beauty-queen's hairstyle, how does that really help us now that "we are facing a planetary emergency which, if not solved, would exceed anything we've experienced in the history of humankind." [Al Gore]

Sure, "people the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power." [Bill Clinton] But what kind of example of democracy do we set when issues and ideas are inevitably crowded out of the headlines by gossip, public spectacle, and personal attack?

And Joe Biden's grandmother may well have taught him that "No one is better than you; everyone is your equal, and everyone is equal to you." The problem is, a lot of people in this country -- powerful and important people -- don't really believe in all that "equality" crap.

And it's not just about race or gender either.

It's about the difference between someone who is about to lose their home to foreclosure on a sub-prime mortgage, and someone who can't even remember how many houses they own.

Or who has never had to worry about the affordability of their health insurance, because they have ALWAYS been able to afford to see any doctor that they wanted any time that they wanted, and to pay the bill in cash.

Or who doesn't really care about the rising cost of attending college, because their family has gone to the same private college in Connecticut for generations, and will no doubt continue to do so regardless of cost, or grades, or their SAT scores....

Sigh. How did the senior Senator from Massachusetts put it?

"The Work Begins Anew.
The Hope Rises Again.
And the Dream Lives On"

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A loose canon?

Over at his blog "The Latest Form of Infidelity," the Reverend Colin Bossen poses the question of whether or not there are certain Unitarian and Universalist "sacred texts" that rise to the level of Scripture, or at least "simply the special status of being important texts."

When I was still in seminary, and even early on into my ministry, this question of whether or not there was (or should be) a UU "canon," and which texts (or by what criteria texts) should be included in it was fairly important to me. But I later came to feel and understand that in many ways the whole issue of canonicity is misdirected -- it's a backhanded attempt to define an orthodoxy by defining a center so explicitly that the boundaries are no longer elastic or permeable.

Rather than canonizing our own, new "Scripture," what we are really looking for is a UU "Talmud" -- a body of texts that we can engage in on-going study and dialog with in ways that also engenders dialog with one another. So to the modest list of texts and authors you have mentioned, I would also want to add Henry Ware Jr's Formation of the Christian Character, as well as his introductory discourse following his own faculty appointment at Harvard on the relationship between Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care. His sermon on "The Personality of the Deity" (delivered in response to Emerson's Divinity School address) would also be on my short to medium list.

His father Henry Ware Sr's 1774 Compendious and Plain Catechism... written in collaboration with Ware's neighbor and colleague in Hingham, Daniel Shute (who thanks to where his name falls in the alphabet gets top billing, although we all have a pretty good idea of who really did most of the hard work) is also a document well-worthy of our attention...since it is doubtlessly one of the principal reasons Ware was nominated and selected for the Hollis Chair to begin with.

The "Wood 'n Ware" texts, on the other hand, are probably way too involved for general inclusion, but they might well be "mined" and anthologized for appropriate content, especially since they are considered by many scholars to be the best discussion of the issues of predestination and free will since Luther and Erasmus debated the question back in the 16th century.

[if it seems as though I am paying a lot of attention to the Wares, it is NOT simply because I wrote my own doctoral dissertation about them. Rather, it has to do with the historical observation that as key members of the Harvard Divinity School faculty, between the two of them they essentially educated an entire generation of Unitarian clergy in what is often referred to as the "Golden Age of American Unitarianism" -- a cohort which included both Emerson and Parker, as well as James Freeman Clarke, William Henry Channing, Joseph Henry Allen, and scores of others who continued to serve "Our Liberal Movement in Theology" well into the remainder of the century.]

Conrad Wright used to place great stock in Henry Whitney Bellows' "The Suspense of Faith;" if memory serves, I even recall hearing him say that if he had it to do over again, he would have included Bellows as the "Fourth Prophet" in the now-nearly canonical anthology that enshrined Channing, Emerson and Parker as the Holy Trinity of the 19th century Unitarian tradition in the first place.

One of the original criteria for New Testament canonicity was the suitability of the text for reading at public worship. Based on that source of authority, I've been struck by how often the words of Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, and T.S. Eliot (or at least that bit on "the end of all our exploring") are proclaimed from our pulpits and lecterns on Sunday mornings. Forrest Church's passages on "The Cathedral of the World" and "the dual reality of being alive and having to die" both make my short list as well. Inclusion in the Hymnal is a clear and obvious marker of some form of semi-scriptural canonicity, so I suppose that Barbara Pescan and Mark Belletini (along with many of our other colleagues, both living and dead) would qualify on those grounds alone.

Here's another question: when we designate a text as "Scripture," what kind of authority does that give it? I often raise this point when talking about inerrancy and the authority of the Bible. Is something "true" simply because it has been included in the Bible? Or are things included in the Bible because somebody, somewhere thought that they were True? Profound Truth is in some ways the ultimate test of Scriptural Authority...and if it IS True, it's going to still be true (and thus authoritative) regardless of the kind of authority we assign it by designating it as "scriptural." So in that sense, anything we designate as scriptural is really just a tool to help us better discover and understand the scripture "written upon the heart." And that list could grow to be very long indeed.