John Halstead on Pagan Ritual and UUism/PB On The Covenantal Approach to Theological Pluralism

Comment of the Day by John Halstead, who contributes, 

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.

Dear John,

Thank you for this thoughtful contribution. I absolutely agree with everything you say and love your suggestion for a commitment to specificity and depth in pagan worship. I would attend every one of the rituals you listed – even as a Christian UU I would be there because those services sound deep, powerful and theologically well-informed. To be a Unitarian Universalist is to be committed to the possibility that wisdom and transcendence can come from a variety of sources. I think we all become jaded and bitter when we try to live in that faith but too often experience worship services that reflect no deep wisdom or transcendent power.

The only thing I would challenge in your comment, or just invite us to consider more deeply, is the idea that if UU worshipers are offended by an element of a worship service (or, in fact, its entire focus) they should stick around to get their own needs met next week.

My concern with this attitude is both pastoral and programmatic: I believe we must pursue a ministry together that asks more of our members than that. I believe that asking people to be good sports, hold their breath and suffer through the worship styles or elements that they don’t personally resonate with is to perpetuate immaturity and petulance among us.  We should make liturgical understanding part of our religious education efforts, in the faith that with understanding comes reconciliation and healing.  We must expect each Unitarian Universalist to do the inner work necessary to get beyond their own restless eye-rolling reactions to theologies they don’t personally resonate with, and to tranquil non-attachment.

There is a connected institutional consideration:  by encouraging people to ignore or merely tolerate what they don’t like and to “wait their turn,” liturgically speaking, we pander to the individualistic, consumer mentality that the Church exists to question, challenge and reject. Church is not a product that one chooses and then purchases, and worship is not an event that one attends as a spectator and then reviews as one would a movie or play. We need to preach covenantal theology, a theology that proclaims that we have been called by the Spirit out of the self-absorbed shallows of the consumer culture to become a people, God’s people, if you will. The covenant tradition teaches us that it is not we who choose to attend worship services based on what the program, but we who are chosen by God to embody and incarnate the shalom, wholeness, peace, and mutual love. In Humanist terms, we might say that it is life’s longing for itself that draws us out out of our separate dwellings to take strength, solace and inspiration from gathering around the common hearth fire.

In this covenantal framework, people do not merely tolerate the readings, hymns, dances, and rituals that constitute one week’s worship and wait impatiently for their favorite flavor or worship to appear back on the menu, they consider each Sunday a sacred hour of spiritual expression to which they obligated to bring their most generous heart and mind. This is not to say that we do not continue to strive for excellence in our offerings, it is a call to re-orient ourselves to a covenantal, rather than a consumeristic, understanding of theological pluralism and its expression in worship,

Thanks again for your comment, John.

 

 

 

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6 Responses to John Halstead on Pagan Ritual and UUism/PB On The Covenantal Approach to Theological Pluralism

  1. That’s a very thoughtful comment, John, though I will note the most dreadful pagan service or ritual I’ve ever attended, whether at a UU church or elsewhere, was indeed the sort of specific service described and advocated. Thats’ only a sample of one, though, and it doesn’t invalidate your larger point.

    I would ask you this though: Why did you use the phrasing “atheists (ahem … I meant “humanists”)”? I personally would much rather be described as an atheist, as I’ve got sympathies in both the naturalist and the humanist camp. The phrasing strikes me as odd, but it’s intentional, and I’m curious what that intent is.

  2. PeaceBang says:

    Yes, I was wondering the same thing. I know many humanists who are not atheists, they’re maybe agnostic or just haven’t thought it through to the point where they want to commit either way. They’re spiritual humanists.

  3. Ellen Snoeyenbos says:

    As a UU Christian, I have been deeply moved by the writings of John Shelby Spong, who as an academic, opens the eyes of his readership to the deeply Jewish context of both the gospel story and the coincidence of the events of the gospel story matching with the Jewish liturgical year. I bring this up in this discussion because I feel that if we could more freely embrace an understanding of the Judeo-Christian heritage we all own, culturally at least, we would be able to dig more authentically into books like the bible and glean the wisdom and value of them. The Upanishads, too, are tremendously complex and rich in spiritual meaning and value, but how often do we spend congregational time to explore in a meaningful way some of that richness? I am tired of the sprinkling of lines from traditions here and there in UU services. This is where we get our most legitimate criticism: dabbling, misappropriating, picking and choosing passages that meet our needs. I think we can do better.

  4. Cindy says:

    “There is a connected institutional consideration: by encouraging people to ignore or merely tolerate what they don’t like and to “wait their turn,” liturgically speaking, we pander to the individualistic, consumer mentality that the Church exists to question, challenge and reject. Church is not a product that one chooses and then purchases, and worship is not an event that one attends as a spectator and then reviews as one would a movie or play. We need to preach covenantal theology, a theology that proclaims that we have been called by the Spirit out of the self-absorbed shallows of the consumer culture to become a people, God’s people, if you will.”

    Amen and Alleluia, PB!

  5. Thank you for the insightful and challenging critique.

    “Church is not a product that one chooses and then purchases, and worship is not an event that one attends as a spectator and then reviews as one would a movie or play.”

    I felt these words were inspired for me in particular. I am afraid I have been guilty of a consumerist mentality with regard to my UU participation.

    The humanist/atheist comment was probably out of place. And I apologize if I offended. In my congregation, no one says “atheist”, although for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Instead they use “humanist” as a kind of code for atheist, which as you point out obscures the difference. I think it has something to do with the notion I have heard expressed there before that atheism tells you what a person does not believe, but humanism tells you what they do believe.

  6. Judy says:

    I completely agree with Ellen’s comments regarding dabbling. We do our spiritual journeys a disservice by failing to grapple with the issues brought forth from exploring texts and practices in depth. Spiritual growth often comes about because we dared to venture some steps beyond our personal comfort zones, initial dislike, or distaste for tough work. I’m grateful for the periods of prolonged study I’ve had with a Wiccan collective and within a dharma (Buddhist) center — all while remaining active in my UU church. The view from the inside of those two traditions looks far different than that found while lingering in the shallow end of the pond. The consumerist culture that’s becoming ever more dominant in our churches encourages this spiritual wading.

    Thanks for this thread — which only emboldens me further as we await the start of the church year.

    Bright blessings to you all.

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