Humanist Worship And the Arts: The Story of Doves Font

Unitarian Universalism is a Humanist tradition at its core: that is, it emphasizes the work of human agency to affect change, justice, salvation (such as it is) and to enact love in the here and now, with minimal concern for the afterlife (which our theological tradition assures us is one of peace and union with the Divine). Even most of us who are Theistic UUs are humanistic in these commitments.

So I think we have two major challenges right now. The first is one of relevance. For every atheist who thinks that God is a quaint, irrational notion that sophisticated humans should have outgrown by now, there is a Theist smiling with barely-concealed pity at the quaint Humanistic notion that we should place our faith in this species. You want evidence of God? Well, I’d jolly well like to see some evidence that humanity is worth placing my faith in.

And I’m only half kidding. It’s just that I read the news every day and not only are humans obviously despicable on the grand scale, they seem to be getting wormier and more horrifying on the personal level as well.

Okay, I’m not at all kidding. I think my fantasy boyfriend Professor Gary Dorrien has written about this — about the challenges of liberal theology to address the reality of depravity and evil.

Second point: I would assume that the grand humanist tradition of any church would make it is work to lift up the greatness of the human endeavor, right? Because that’s its gospel, right? That humans are these creatures of awesome achievement and potential, right?

If we’re supposed to do that through our worship, why is our worship often so deadly awful, drab, and painfully unbeautiful? Why are our aesthetics so often pitiful (woe to those who fail to appreciate the Altar Guilds! Those ladies were fiercely devoted to beauty!), our liturgies so unconcerned with transcendence, beauty, order, and harmony? Are our services being designed in the Humanist tradition (which should consider Art a religious value – human-produced in the spirit of transcendent ideals) or in the American Individualistic tradition? Or maybe I should call it the American Consumeristic Tradition (mass-produced, cheap materials, break easily, are easily replaced)?

Are we allergic to the quest for beauty because it too closely resembles the quest for holiness?

I’ve been reading my head off about the Aesthetic Movement in Victorian England this past week and I’m getting all drunk in love with people like William Morris, who was an amazing artist and poet AND a social reformer and Socialist, and I’m thinking, “Wow, what if William Morris was a minister? What kind of worship service would he lead? What kind of church space would he create?” Oh my God, it would be a glorious thing with stunning language and music and art, and can you imagine the sanctuary he would want to preach in?

And then I think of what my colleagues and I tend to offer and I think, “Really? An earnest talk about ethical eating, some tepid little readings that came from what – the Utne Reader? Or maybe a Mary Oliver poem for a safe injection of theologically-non-threatening pretty words (but not her later work, her early stuff before she got too Christian)? If we reference beauty, notice that it is almost exclusively the beauty of the natural world: our sentimental attachment to the wilderness that the vast majority only access for a few days a year, if at all. We write about our suburban birds and our local beaches with such wistful need and affection. I have yet to hear an ode on an Ikea vase, if not a Grecian urn. Reading through our meditation selections (rant: Lord how I hate that term as it is currently used, or misused, in worship! No one can meditate in 30 seconds. Can we please call this prayerful moment in worship what it is? “A time for reflection and prayer?”) one would think our ministers had never walked a city block in their lives. We love rocks, shells, gardens, trees and the wind. We seem to have lost our awareness of the existence of architecture, poetry, dance (except when used as a metaphor for relationship), fashion, cinema, painting, etc. Our subject matter and rhetoric are narrower with every decade and it is suffocating because it is so incredibly uncreative. One framework, one lens, one conversation. Suffocating. Art is liberating.

I want to see a UU meditation on the design of a Ferrari or the spiritual impact of an Alexander McQueen gown. Not an analysis, not an exoticization of an indigenous art form (our version of the “noble savage” trope), but a poem, an ode, a prayer.

We don’t even have the Bible because it’s too offensive. Never mind that the language is exquisite and the imagery really powerful and gripping – it’s just OUT.

When Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, a member of William Morris’ circle who was not a traditionally religious guy, made it his aim to design “The Book Beautiful,” he used Doves font and used it to design the Doves Bible of 1902.

















I wonder how much of our beauty-avoidance is a hangover from our iconoclastic, Puritan origins in America. If so, it’s time we got over it and started realizing that the Arts are one of the most profound ways to communicate the humanist gospel. All our clergy should have some understanding of the fine arts, the humanities, not just theology and social justice. We should remember how powerfully the arts have been used to express not only beauty and life, but also how they have influenced social change. We should be embarrased by the mindless ways we’ve slapped together an aesthetic from various ethnic groups and people whose “stuff looks cool” and remained ignorant of the values, skills and commitments that inform those works of art. Our churches need an art education.

By the way, if you’re digging that Doves font, you can’t use it for your own materials. You know why? Thomas Codben-Sanderson got really ticked off at his former business partner Emery Walker, who was to take possession of the actual type after Cobden-Sanderson’s death, and took the entire font, chunk by chunk, down to the Hammersmith Bridge and threw it in the Thames. He drowned this beautiful type because he didn’t trust Emery Walker not to use it for some tawdry commercial purpose. It went from here:

Off of here:

12 Replies to “Humanist Worship And the Arts: The Story of Doves Font”

  1. I think it’s both (ironically) our Puritan hangover *and* our radical, early Humanist hangover (no bells, no smells, lyrics scrupulously examined word by word to avoid anything that reeked of bad theology–which is fine, as bad theology needs to be weeded out, but when it came at the price of people singing *badly* out of suspicion, it killed beauty there. Kenneth Patton–a raging Humanist–understood the power and import of symbolism and beauty, but too many didn’t…). The real world that the Transcendentalists reveled in, in all its glory, was in large measure lost to us… until the Pagans and other Earth-centered folk dragged dirt, and leaves, and candles, and incense, and dancing… back into our sanctuaries.

    Which isn’t to say it’s all theirs. But they started making it something that had to be tolerated. And once people began to hear the drumming, and to get a taste of their embodied joy, they started wondering where that was in all the other traditions we claim and embrace.

    We’re moving. But it’s still unfamiliar and we’re hesitant. Sad about Dove. I’m afraid that I think he was a shade too purist–I mean, religion and commerce, the sacred and the profane, have been entangled (and will remain so!) for a very, very long time. Destroying a thing of beauty so that it can’t be used for something trivial seems to come from the same kind of impulse that leads to murdering a former lover so no one else can profane what you once had. Extremism in any form is repugnant. Hammersmith Bridge is beautiful. It’s also used for the utmost mundane purposes. The idea that completely mundane, daily objects should not be beautiful too… seems like part of this mania about what beauty is and is for. We need both bread and roses–and both are inescapably entangled in a system that includes manure.

    (I would, however, like to particularly thank you for adding another curious synchronicity of dove postings that’s erupted all around me.)

    [Dearest Patrick, I am not advocating for more dancing in worship, although I can see that my post was misleading in that way. I am calling for an Aesthetic sensibility, which means to be inspired by, informed by, and to-a-certain-extent knowledgeable about the arts. I believe that UUs are in a poverty-stricken state in terms of Beauty in that our language, images, sense of design, personal appearance (did you go to GA? OY!) and even our attitude have become cliched, strident, allergic to history (except to have a critique of Sins of the Past) and devoid of inspiring vision. What we have come up with is a screaming yellow t-shirt with a logo on it. And the chalice — usually designed in a decidedly hippie 70’s style – is our great visual contribution? Some of our congregations gather in the ugliest buildings mankind has ever built and the interiors are cluttered with ugly folding chairs, paper fliers all over the hallways, and plastic children’s toys in the RE rooms. Soul-killing. And not to dismiss the contribution made by the Pagan contingent but when I think “aesthetics” the pagan community is most decidedly NOT what comes to mind. In fact, I believe that the neo-pagan community has done more harm than good by inflicting too many embarrassingly bad rituals, dances and music on our worshiping communities. – PB]

  2. You asked, “Wow, what if William Morris was a minister? What kind of worship service would he lead? What kind of church space would he create?”

    He would likely be Percy Dearmer. Start with his Parson’s Handbook — I started to live-blog my reading of it — where he combines the historically catholic, the harmoniously beautiful and a vital concern for just welfare for those who make the church’s material goods. It’s squarely Anglo-Catholic — so many of those early priests were Socialists, by the way — so not so applicable for our merchant-class Protestantism, but inspirational.
    On Google books:

    Oh, and I think you’re playing fast with “the Humanist tradition” of Unitarian Universalism — it means at least two things, though only one is commonly in current use — but more about that some other time.

  3. Anglo-Catholic is the answer to your question. Which is what Morris was in his collegiate years–for a while he intended to seek Anglican orders.

    If you are not already familiar w/ the Anglo-Catholic socialist tradition, start here:
    A deeply humanistic, aesthetic, and Christological movement. And socialist.
    And there are still some of us around.

  4. I’m imagining a Saturday Night Live sketch in which a UU committee issues a treatise on why beauty is offensive. Tee hee!

    No, really, I think metaphor is nearly required for meaningful worship. Recently went to Shaker Village in Kentucky and attended a musical performance that put Shaker hymns into a presentation with dance and exposition. Gorgeous! “Simple Gifts” performed with dance made me cry. Would have without the dance. Oddly enough, the worship space was austere, but the music? Divine.

  5. I’ve been thinking about this a lot–there’s an post I must finish called “My Three Stages of Disco Enlightenment”–and what religion brings (or should) to this atheist is beauty. If it doesn’t open us up to the beauty and grandeur of this world, from wild nature to wilder cities and all, I don’t know what good it is.

  6. Amen sista! UU sanctuaries should have altars by Andrews Goldsworthy and prayer niches filled with Klimts and pews made by those righteous Arts & Crafts dudes, cushioned with pillows by Morris! And good music, for goodness sake! Oh this list I have . . . . I can’t imagine being anything but a UU, theologically speaking, and yet it just isn’t feeding my soul in the ways I want it to . . . I’m half Catholic and half pagan inside, but my brain just can’t jump on either of those trains. Oy!

  7. My introduction to Paganism was through a CUUPS (Covenant of UU Pagans) Wheel of the Year ceremony. It was only later that I learned that CUUPS rituals are considered by many Pagans to be some of the worst out there. And my experience has confirmed that. Having experienced some Pagan rituals from other traditions since then, I can still say that there is more bad than good in most public rituals. But I think there is a reason that CUUPS rituals are particularly bad and it is precisely because of the “dumbing down” of UU aesthetics that you have described. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the “embarrassingly bad rituals, dances and music” inflicted by Pagans on the UU, which you described in your response to Patrick above, actually says more about the influence of UUism on Paganism than the other way around.
    CUUPS suffers from the same challenge as the UU generally: it tries to be everything to everybody, and ends up being nothing to anybody. That’s an overstatement, but you get my point. By trying to make itself inoffensive to atheists (ahem … I meant “humanists”), Buddhists, liberal Christians, Pagans, and so on, the UU has denied itself access to a rich source of symbolism, imagery, music, and beauty. Anything worth doing is bound to offend someone. What should bind us together as UUs is not our inoffensiveness, but that we can roll with the offense.
    You made an excellent point about the Bible. I will always remember one Sunday morning discussion group at my local UU where the token Christian in the congregation wanted to talk about something in the Bible, but no one could find a Bible in the entire church. And the discussion group was held in the church lending library for God’s sake. If my 11th grade English teacher could get away with telling her public school students to read the Bible as literature, surely we can have a Bible in the church library.
    That same token Christian has suggested that our UU congregation (which is about 1/2 humanist) should adopt a liturgical year of sorts. We already have a Christmas Eve service which I notice all the humanists attend. I also heard about one Easter service which our openly-atheist minister actually conducted a (completely voluntary) communion — although that upset a lot of people. What the UU needs is more specificity, not less. We need not to be afraid of offending some people or even a lot of people. If you’re offended by the Christian service this week, don’t worry, next week we’ll be doing something completely secular, or Buddhist, or Pagan. Stick around and you’ll be bound to be offended on some occasions and inspired on others.
    And the same goes for the CUUPS rituals. The worst Pagan rituals are ones that try to be generic Pagan, which end up being vaguely WIccan, but not specific to any particular tradition. Instead, CUUPS should dedicate particular celebrations to one tradition, for example: a feminist witchcraft ritual for Candlemas, a Christo-Pagan ritual at the spring equinox, a Celtic Reconstructionist ceremony for May Day, a Druid ceremony at the summer solstice, a Kemetic (Egyptian) ceremony at Lammas, a Hellenic (Greek) Reconstructionist ceremony at the autumn equinox, a Wiccan ceremony at Samhain, and an Asatruar (Norse/German) ceremony at the winter solstice. Such rituals are bound to be much more evocative than any generic ritual.

  8. So with you here. Art museums are lick churches to me in a major way. I often feel more in tune, more reverent at the museum than at church because at church I’ve got to make sure all my ducks are in a row for Sunday school, teach Sunday school, talk to so-and-so about such-and-such committee, etc. Facilitating Our Whole Lives is definitely god’s work, but it’s a lot of work, and doesn’t give me the same sense of peace as a quiet museum gallery with a well-placed bench.
    I grew up in Texas, in a place where a lot of the UU churches were very new, some so new as to be held in strip malls or gyms before they got their own buildings. Moving to NYC and visiting the congregation in Brooklyn Heights kind of threw me for a (good) loop with the age of the building and the fact that they have Tiffany windows that aren’t even original to the building. Can you imagine a UU congregation in this day & age shelling out for the equivalent of Tiffany windows?

  9. I know what you mean about the buildings. I attend a small congregation in Northwest Indiana that has a small chapel that was built in 1874 and has the original wooden benches and tall gold-tinted windows that let in the most amazing light. It holds only a 100 or so and is very intimate. Just a couple of weeks ago, I visited another congregation in Chicago which was held in what looked like is used to be a Catholic cathedral with a nave and everything. The central space on the wall behind the minister was empty, but it must have once held a large crucifix. It was a very different experience. I enjoy the beauty of Catholic worship spaces, but it seem incongruous for a UU service.

  10. Although I don’t agree with you that human beings are “obviously despicable on the grand scale” (I have more hope in human beings than that!), I certainly agree with the idea that Humanist “worship” (as a non-UU Humanist I’m not so comfortable with that word ;)) is often lacking in beauty and a certain urge toward the transcendent. In my own community, I think that’s partly because of the concern that the use of music and ritual, particularly, is too “churchy” and carries negative connotations for those of our members who have left church life behind. I agree, too, that the aesthetic frameworks which we do draw on, when we get the courage to draw on any at all, tend to be staid, dull and limiting – endless natural metaphors and stuff like that.

    I want a new Humanist aesthetic – edgy, fun, perhaps risque, life-affirming and celebratory. Vibrant and joyous without being twee. I’m not sure how to get there, but I’ve been experimenting here at Harvard with lots of ideas (I helped design a Humanist service, consider my talks on Humanism to be a form of testimony or witness, and I write about this stuff on my blog), and I’d love to exchange ideas sometime!

    You may be interested in these posts, actually:

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