Where we’re coming from?

Theology comes from the week-to-week actions of a worshipping community far more than it comes from academia. Attend some Unitarian Universalist worship services and listen what is being preached, what is being sung, and what is being prayed, and you’ll learn more about Unitarian Universalist theology than if you read books by academic theologians like Thandeka and Paul Rasor. This isn’t meant as a put-down of academic theologians, it’s simply what I feel is true.

So when I read in our denominational magazine that one of our “most beloved hymns” is a song by Carolyn McDade called “Spirit of Life,” that makes me think that if I listen to that hymn, I’ll learn something about where mainstream Unitarian Universalist theology is these days.

“Spirit of Life,” says the hymn, “come unto me.” It’s a hymn written in 1981, one of the peak years of the feminist revolution, when women were really finding their voice and finding their power — the hymn is calling the power of the divine into women who had been too long ignored by Western religion. Or we could reframe that same idea with the insights of third wave feminism: “Spirit of Life” was written when second wave feminism was at its peak, when affluent white college-educated middle-class women were claiming additional power and influence for themselves by putting and end to discrimination against affluent white college-educated middle-class women — but the hymn assumes individuals will have a certain level of power and influence, and includes a cultural bias towards individualism. So if “Spirit of Life” is one of the most popular Unitarian Universalist hymns, we could probably conclude that the feminist theology we have hasn’t been particularly good at including women of color and working-class women.

(However, don’t take this a commentary on Carolyn McDade’s theology. Her earlier hymn, “We’ll Build a Land” from 1979, is far less individualistic, calling for solidarity with all persons with phrases like, “Come build a land where sisters and brothers/ anointed by God may then create peace/ where justice shall roll down like waters….”)