Tag Archives: flaming chalice

Lecture four: Religious humanist communities

Fourth and final lecture for a class on UU humanism

For me, it is a basic axiom that religion is lived out in human communities. In the culture wars of the past half century, our society has somehow gotten the mistaken notion that religion can be boiled down to irrational beliefs; that is to say, religion has become equated with a certain narrow subset of ontotheology. From my point of view, however, religious practice comes first, and the explanations come along later to try to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. Praxis antedates theoria; liturgy and practice trump ontotheology. That being said, I think it is worth examining some religious humanist practices in order to better understand the religious side of humanism.

Let’s start with the stereotype of a religious humanist community. According to the stereotype, religious humanism is a religion of the head, not the heart and body. Therefore, religious humanist communities spend their time in endless debate about intellectual matters. Because intellect is highly valued, and because intellect is somehow equated with the possession of college and graduate degrees, status in this stereotypical community is determined in part by an individual’s level of academic attainment: post-docs rank far higher than bachelor’s degrees, and if you only have a high school diploma you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut. Furthermore, the sciences outrank the humanities by at least two degrees, so that a bachelor’s degree in science trumps a doctoral degree in English literature. This stereotypical religious humanist community vigorously roots out anything that looks, sounds, or smells like more traditional Western religions, so there are no sermons (though there may be lectures and talks), no candles nor much in the way of visual interest, no hymns or psalms (though songs might be allowed), and no reading from scriptures.

Now obviously I have drawn a caricature of religious humanism here. Continue reading

Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 6

Sixth in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post. Back to the first post in this series.

(E) Some challenges for post-Christian worship

At this point, I’d like to face up to several challenges faced by post-Christian congregations trying to shape meaningful common worship. I see two groups of challenges: first, the challenges of liturgical changes; second, several challenges to the commonality of common worship. The liturgical innovations that challenge common worship are the challenge of new liturgical elements, the redefinition of the sermon, and the challenge of false intimacy. Current threats to common worship include the esoteric impulse and the danger of invisible oppression (or not seeing who isn’t there), and the idolatry of worship as entertainment.

(E.1) Liturgical innovations

~~(E.1.1) The challenge of new liturgical elements:

Let me begin by examining a new liturgical element that has crept into my own religious community, Unitarian Universalism. The lighting of a “flaming chalice,” typically a candle or alcohol lamp in a footed vase, is a liturgical innovation that has become widespread in Unitarian Universalist congregations over the past two decades. It is my belief that lighting a chalice at the beginning of a worship service dates back to Kenneth Patton’s Charles Street Meeting House in the 1950s, where a lamp (in the shape of an ancient Greek lamp), similar in shape to today’s chalices, was lit at the beginning of each worship service, and extinguished at the end. Now, nearly every Unitarian Universalist congregation uses a flaming chalice in its liturgy. The challenge is this:– what does this new post-Christian symbol mean?

Continue reading

The symbol story

The following was written by Rev. Don King, and comes from the September 12, 1976, issue of the Pioneer, the newsletter of UU Society of Geneva:

The banner which hangs at the front of our church was made during the spring and summer by a group of women in the Alliance. The symbol which it displays was the result of an evolution which began during World War II and is still going on.

It began with the flaming chalice in the ellipse designed by Hans Deutsch, a refugee helped by the Unitarian Service Committee, and grew out of the need for some identifying mark in a world of many languages, stamps, and seals.

The basic part of the symbol is a chalice. The burning flame in the chalice is symbolic of helpfulness and sacrifice. The chalice with the flame remotely suggests a cross, which shows the background of our heritage [editor’s note: Don King was a humanist].

Fred Weidman, in Dearborn, Michigan, had the symbol made into jewelry and other decorative items. It was widely used by the Unitarian Service Committee, the American Unitarian Association, and many local churches.

About the same time, 1946, a group of Universalist ministers, including Richard Knost and Albert Ziegler, devised a symbol to represent their interpretation of Universalism. They put a Latin cross in a circle, but put it off center.

The circle, considered a perfect figure and being without beginning or end, suggested God and eternity. The cross indicated our Christian origins. As a whole, they symbol exhibits a tension and suggests an urge to strive for improvement in ourselves and our world. Revelation is not complete or final, but partial and growing. There is still much truth to be known.

In addition to the obvious uses — jewelry, lapel pins, letterheads, church bulletins — the off-center cross appeared in many churches in motifs of decoration and as an altar symbol.

With merger in 1961, and in some united churches still earlier, came efforts to devise a symbol which would combine the two already in use.

The Continental Association [i.e., the UUA] used two interlocking circles, symbolizing the union of the two denominations. These circles appeared on mailings from the office in Boston to identify them as Unitarian Universalist.

Several persons hit upon the idea of putting the flaming chalice in the circle. Such a device became the official symbol of the Midwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference and identified its letterheads and envelopes. It appeared on the banner of the Midcontinental Messenger from October, 1960, until February, 1964. A large mosaic was hung on the wall of the office at 5711 Woodlawn in Chicago.

While making a drawing of this symbol to be used on envelopes, Betty King [Don’s wife] hit upon the idea of putting the flaming chalice in the interlocking circles. Her sketch went to the printers and cuts and mats were made. Both symbols appeared in the August, 1962, issue of the Midcontinental Messenger. It was widely copied and still frequently appears on a church bulletin or on a special program [editor’s note: Betty King’s drawing is quite similar to the current UUA logo].

Fred Weidman had four copies of the chalice in the single circle made.

No widespread attempt has been made to design jewelry, but Betty King had about a dozen necklaces made and sold or gave them to friends. The Fellowship in Springfield, Illinois, had plaques made with the interlocking circles and chalice mounted on a wall shield.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee used it for several years, but now has abandoned it for a sort of ‘mod’ chalice design.

[The above is Copyright (c) 1976 by the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva.]

I think Don King’s short essay is an interesting addition to the flaming chalice lore that circulates around our denomination. I particularly like the fact that he says this is a symbol which has evolved over the years, and which keeps on evolving.

Note that Don King makes no mention of the now-familiar three dimensional chalice which is lit at the beginning of many of today’s Unitarian Universalist worship services. Persumably, that was not happening back in 1976 here in Geneva.