Humanism. Build or Remodel?
Church today was gruesome. And more than a little bit weird. I’m not saying anyone did anything wrong by their lights. It was typical Unitarian butchering of religion. But you should know the context.
First, imagine this:
It’s post-war Germany. Many people are unemployed and poor, so there’s lots of time for making babies. There are also a lot of Nazi flags lying around. It’s not a stretch that one of them would end up as a baby blanket. Or that that family would emigrate to Boston. Or that they would join the local Unitarian church.
Now we have a 2 year old carrying a Nazi flag around in a Unitarian church in Boston in 1952. Who would take a kid’s blanket away?
That’s what happened in church today. That was the weird part. The topic was prayer, and a young non-theistic woman explained that, despite its origins, she still found the Hail, Mary prayer comforting and useful. She dismissed the idea that Mary helped her, and she wouldn’t want to cut in line ahead of starving children. But in one anguished moment (her sister was missing), she repeated this prayer and found it helpful.
She then recited the entire Hail, Mary for effect. That was another weird moment. UUs are very eclectic, happy to appropriate good ideas from wherever they are found. But this woman didn’t seem to think there were any good ideas in this prayer. She simply found its music comforting. She found it useful despite its ideas. Like a child being comforted by a Nazi flag.
Now, Godwin’s Law suggests I should avoid the Nazi comparison. But if you object to it, then you don’t know very much about the Catholic Church.
One of my hopes for UU is that it will provide modern, humanist replacements for the shopworn traditions we’ve inherited. But there seem to be two main ways of moving forward, Build or Remodel.
In this case, this woman seems to be a remodeler. She sees no problem in converting an abattoir into a condominium. This sort of thing is actually done, and often works. For instance, Dachau is now a tourist attraction. Why can’t a prayer that exalts one woman above all others become a prayer that ennobles all women?
Builders see things differently. For various reasons, they conclude that it’s best to start fresh. They don’t want to live in a house where a famous murder occurred. They don’t want the public to be confused by turning a sewage plant into a restaurant. If they use parts of old structures, they scrub off the labels.
So, what should we do? Well, that depends on our values. If we’re respectful of Nazi flags, we probably wouldn’t let a kid suck on one. And if we’re respectful of Catholic doctrine, we probably wouldn’t hollow out a hallowed prayer and draft it into efforts which Catholics oppose.
I mentioned this to the young woman after church and she seemed to agree with this much. She was able to use the prayer in a UU service precisely because she didn’t respect the Catholic tradition! She stole its comforting music, wrenching it out of the Catholic canon, leaving its meaning behind and assigning another. That was the gruesome part.
This evisceration is not obvious because it happens offstage. It seems irrelevant. But it’s only irrelevant if we don’t respect Catholic ideas. Now, UUs often say they respect all religious traditions, but of course that isn’t what they mean. They mean that they respect every human being, and they try to keep an open mind about the big questions. But they hold values, like equality, for instance, so they aren’t going to be open to the KKK or Nazism.
This is usually laughed off as too obvious to mention, but then we come to Christianity. Is Christianity more like UUism or Nazism? Well, that depends on which parts you wrench out of the body of Christ.
If you’re a remodeler, you’ll have to work pretty hard to rehabilitate “No one gets to the Father except through Me” or “Do not resist one who is evil”. Even remodelers rent a garbage bin for the demolition phase. And there’s a tipping point, where Remodelers look a lot like Builders. If you demolish the foundation, you’re basically starting from scratch anyway.
In such cases, what do we call our new structure? Do we honor the past and use the old name? If not, can we really bury the past? Don’t people have a right to know where things came from?
The answers to these questions depend on our values, but there are some tradeoffs none of us can avoid:
If we hollow out religious ideas and appropriate them, we can’t at the same time respect them. We have to do violence to them.
If we keep supremacist or inegalitarian religious ideas (such as Jesus taught), then we can’t respect all human beings. We have to do violence to them.
The only way forward without doing violence is to start fresh. Yes, there may be times where remodeling makes sense. It might save money or time, or it might let you ride the coattails of a recognized brand. But if we care about ideas, or don’t want the taint of association, that way is closed.
Should we care about ideas? Do we have to take Catholic doctrine seriously? Why not raid it and take just the good bits? Well, actions have consequences. If we pirate the Catholic brand, how do we avoid spreading its untoward aspects? Imitation is flattery. Despite saying she renounced the ideas in the Hail, Mary, our reader was a vector for it, infecting 200 new minds. Some may never have heard it before! All publicity is good publicity. It lends a luster of legitimacy, and shores up its dominance, even if we are trying to amend it.
My own solution is this. Even though I don’t respect beliefs that don’t fit with my values, no matter what their origin (religious or otherwise), I don’t try to remodel them. I am a Builder. First, I care about ideas, even ones I reject. I take them seriously. This precludes bending them out of all recognition to fit UU principles. Second, religions have no good ideas of their own anyway! All their good stuff is simply human heritage that they have claimed, then charged admission for.
By my values, it is far better to simply Build a brand of our own, and give it away for free. Religion has nothing we need, or anything unique to offer. If we value clarity, it is more trouble than it’s worth.