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: