Haunting Words

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

My colleague, the Rev. Robby Walsh, tells a story about a young, unmarried woman who asks him to baptize her newborn baby who needs a heart operation. Rev. Walsh starts explaining the Unitarian Universalist ‘child dedication’ ceremony to her. He tells her what it isn’t, what it doesn’t do. It isn’t Christian. It doesn’t wash away sin. It doesn’t guarantee the child access to heaven. It doesn’t make the child a member of the church. She listens patiently, and when he’s done she says: “All I want is to know is that God blesses my baby.” He writes, “I gasped at the sudden clarity in the room. I said, with a catch in my throat, ‘I think I can do that.’ And I did.”[1]

Words matter. Religious words matter. The Rev. Fred Muir challenges us: “If we
hope to spread our liberal religious gospel, we must become familiar and comfortable with the vocabulary of faith. We must learn the language! As Unitarian Universalists, we bring liberal and heretical spirit to this vocabulary that can breathe new life into ancient words.”[2] I say yes to meeting this challenge. I say yes to breathing new life into ancient words. Rev. Muir says “we have isolated ourselves by speaking a language that very few understand and appreciate—including some of our own members…. In the process of shaping our…faith, the vocabulary we have chosen is so far from the traditional spiritual, theological, and religious mainstream that enunciating our beliefs for others has posed a significant if not insurmountable challenge.”[3] I tend to agree. Rev. Walsh’s baptism story is just one example of how we Unitarian Universalists risk distancing ourselves from people who express their spiritual hungers in more traditional ways. It’s not a question of whether he is Christian or even believes in God. Can he respond in the moment to this young woman’s spiritual need? I feel strongly that if we hope to spread our liberal religious gospel—our message of spiritual freedom, inclusion, individual worth, human potential, social justice, democracy, liberation and the interdependence of all life—if any of us in this room wish to more effectively speak to friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and even strangers about Unitarian Universalism, it might really help if we know how to communicate our message in more traditional religious language. Words matter. Religious words matter.

You may very well disagree. Your gut may be saying, “Nope, not going there, Rev.” Some of you may hear that list of words Rev. Muir cited in the reading—sin, atonement, evil, salvation, prayer, blessing, grace, scripture, God[4]—and, just for fun, let’s add abomination, angels, anointing, Armageddon, Bible, chosen people, communion, creation, demons, evangelism, infidel, miracle, messiah, Sabbath and saint—you may hear all these words and say, “this is precisely the language that drove me away from religion.” You may say, “I couldn’t be me until I put these words behind me; I couldn’t breathe until I put these words behind me.” For many of us this is the language of irrationality, superstition, fantasy, feudalism, the Dark Ages. This is language we associate with patriarchy, racism, homophobia, abuse, self-loathing, alienation, loneliness, fear, terror. This language, all too often, is implicated in religious arrogance, hypocrisy, exclusivity, hatred, violence and war. In so many ways, for so many Unitarian Universalists—not all of us, but especially those who left more conservative religious communities and eventually found a spiritual home here—this language haunts us. This ‘vocabulary of faith’ is a ghost from a religious past that didn’t work for us and may even have harmed us.  So I better have one heck of a good reason for suggesting we become more familiar and comfortable with traditional religious language. If I don’t, I trust you’ll let me know.

Let me begin with some thoughts on theme-based ministry. I’ve written about it a few times since we started experimenting with it in January, 2009, but I’ve noticed that despite my occasional attempts to explain its value in congregational life, some of the themes we’ve selected for this year have already generated some heated discussion, anxiety, controversy, resistance. Salvation, our theme for October, raised some eyebrows. It’s one of those words that, given its current usage in American religion, understandably makes some liberal religious people hesitant, suspicious, skeptical.

So why theme-based ministry? Some of you are familiar with the Christian lectionary, a book used by Catholics and some Protestants which details Bible readings for three years of Sunday worship services. If you attend a lectionary-based church every Sunday for three years, you will hear the entire Bible. This means that once every three years you return to the same Biblical passage. Once every three years you encounter it again; you deepen your understanding of it; you reconsider how it applies to your life circumstances. Theme-based ministry is similar. We begin with a list of thirty-six theological themes. We assign one theme to each month over the course of three years. During each month, the minister dedicates at least one Sunday service to exploring the theme. One lay-led service may be dedicated to the theme as well. Children’s and family worship focuses on the theme. Newsletter articles, small group ministry conversations, and on and on for one month. I see in this practice a wonderful, long-term collective spiritual discipline. Just as lectionary-based Christian churches share the discipline of reading the entire Bible in worship over the course of three years, we have the opportunity to dig deeply into these thirty-six themes over the same time period. We revisit each theme once every three years, which means we have a way to assess our own spiritual growth. If the theme is salvation, what was I thinking and feeling about salvation three years ago? How did I think it did or didn’t apply to my life then? How do I encounter it now? How have I changed? How have I grown?

My friend, the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, made a great point about the value of theme-based ministry. He was talking about evil as a theological theme, reminding us that Unitarian Universalism, because of its positive view of human nature, has historically had little to say about evil. Yet we know there is evil in the world. We know human beings have the capacity to choose to do great harm instead of great good. We  ought to be able to talk about evil as a religious community. But if the minister only ever preached one sermon on evil in 1972 and you missed it, well tough! If we practice the discipline of collectively exploring evil as a theological theme at least once every three years, then we insure ourselves the opportunity to grow in our understanding of its nature and in our sense of how to orient and conduct our lives in a world where evil exists. 

Now, let me make it abundantly clear: when I speak of becoming familiar and comfortable with traditional religious language, I am not advocating that we simply adopt these words as they are currently used in the larger culture. If I were, I would expect you to start searching for a new minister. Some of these words, as they are currently used, have, in my view, been tainted—some might say “hijacked”—in the service of more conservative religious and political agendas.  Rev. Muir points out that in our time religious fundamentalists of many traditions, and certainly the American Religious Right have “co-opted the religious dictionary by cutting out all the words they wanted, assigning their definitions to these words, and then pasting them into a new dictionary and calling it the official one.”[5] Words matter. Religious words matter. And while I fully agree that religious conservatives have every right to define their words and use them in a way that is meaningful for them, I’m tired of the Religious Right owning religious language in the United States. I’m tired of the Religious Right defining religious words in the United States. We have a right—and I want to add here that we have a responsibility—to define and use religious words, specifically those that come out of the Jewish and Christian heritage—our heritage! Unitarianism and Universalism both originated in the United States in the earliest days of the nation—the first Universalist convention was in 1790; Unitarian theologians and clergy began denominational organizing in the early 19th century. Both traditions had precursors going back to the earliest days of Christianity. We were around long before there was a Religious Right in the United States, long before modern religious fundamentalism. Traditional religious language—those words—sin, atonement, evil, salvation, prayer, blessing, grace, scripture, God[6]—and many others belong to us as much as any other tradition. Again, we have the right and  the responsibility to reclaim them, refashion them, reinterpret them, breathe new life into them and make them relevant not only for our own spiritual life together, but for the future of American religion.

A number of people said to me that salvation has no place in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I understand where that sentiment comes from, but I respectfully disagree. Every time we say this or that word—this or that piece of our religious heritage—doesn’t belong in our congregation, it is like saying we don’t
have the right and the responsibility to speak in religious terms or to own religious language. And when we say that, we help the Religious Right cement its place as the pre-preeminent religious expression in the United States. To me, this is unacceptable. Let me say it again: We have the right and the responsibility to explore and reclaim these words.

Salvation! Our spiritual forebears were Universalists. They believed in a loving God who would damn nobody, who would save all souls. They proclaimed a very simple doctrine: universal salvation. With this spiritual heritage it is our right and our responsibility to breathe new life into that ancient word so that it remains relevant and meaningful to us and to all those seekers who come, as the poet Rilke says, not “yearning for an afterlife, [not] looking beyond, [not] belittling death, but only longing for what belongs to us and serving earth, lest we remain unused.”[7] I was very pleased with last Sunday’s worship, which asked, “how is salvation relevant to us?” Our three speakers acknowledged the difficulty they experience with salvation as it is currently understood in the larger religious culture. Yet they spoke eloquently about saving and being saved in and for this life, saving and being saved in and for this world; about salvaging and salving, to use Lynn Ungar’s words;[8] about what makes life worth living in the ‘here and now.’ They ministered to us by breathing new life into that ancient, haunting word.

I’m tired of the assumption that American religion equals evangelical Christianity. I’m tired of the assumption that only conservative religious people have values. I’m tired of the cultural tyranny—and many of us do experience it as tyranny—of conservative religious definitions of what constitutes moral and sinful behavior. I’m tired of the relative invisibility of liberal religion in culture, politics and the media. I’m tired of the shallow, manipulative—even crass—conscription of religious language into the service of the so-called prosperity gospel, a growing movement among Christian evangelicals and Pentecostals and even some more liberal denominations that identifies financial and material wealth as not only the reward but the divine right of those who profess “correct” belief.  And when it comes to salvation, I’m tired of so-called American religion’s constant, relentless emphasis on the next life while ignoring the causes of suffering, isolation, alienation, injustice and oppression in this life, as well as ignoring and minimizing the things that truly bring joy, happiness, peace and fulfillment in this life. Salvation indeed.

Words matter. Religious words matter. I have high expectations for myself, for this congregation, and for Unitarian Universalism. I want Unitarian Universalists to “breathe new life” into ancient words currently locked in what I consider to be stifling, exclusivist, selfish, patriarchal, homophobic, life-denying, earth-denying, spirit-crushing definitions. I want Unitarian Universalists to breathe new life into ancient words because it’s time for a revolution in American religion and spirituality and we can’t help foment that  revolution if we don’t take responsibility for these words.  I want Unitarian Universalists to breathe new life into ancient words because it’s long past time for a resurgence of the liberal religious spirit that rose up with the founding of the nation—that in fact helped inspire the founding of the nation—and we can’t help foment such a resurgence if we don’t take responsibility for these words. I want Unitarian Universalists to breathe new life into ancient words because it’s time to assert liberation—both personal and collective, both spiritual and social—as the central mission of American religion, and we can’t make that assertion if we don’t take responsibility for these words. I want Unitarian Universalists to breathe new life into ancient words because those of us who have been wounded by religion need to finally heal our wounds. We can’t continue living as if these words don’t belong to us, and then wincing and cringing every time we hear them. We can’t continue being haunted by these words.  It’s time for us to go back to them, to claim then, to own them on our own terms, to speak them in our own voices.  There is much at stake. Words matter. Religious words matter. Let us learn anew to speak words that matter. Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Walsh, Robert, Noisy Stones (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1992) p. 31.

[2] Muir, Frederic John, Heretics’ Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals (Annapolis: Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, 2001) pp. 2-3.

[3] Ibid., p. 2.

[4] Ibid., p. 3.

[5] Ibid., p. 2.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Barrows, Anita and Macy Joanna, tr., Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 121.

[8] Ungar, Lynn, “Salvation,” Blessing the Bread (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) pp. 20-21.