Tag Archives: Kenneth Patton

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

Do all religions share a common thread?

UU World magazine recently published “Do All Religions Share a Common Thread?”, a book review column I wrote in which I discuss God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter by Stephen Prothero, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together by the Dalai Lama, and A Religion for One World: Art and Symbols for a Universal Religion by Kenneth Patton. You can read it online here.

You can comment over on that site, but realistically I am less likely to respond to your comment there. Therefore, if you want to engage me in conversation about that column, feel free to comment here.

Update, 2020: This article still appears on UU World’s list of top ten most accessed articles. Go figure.

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?

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Who should do theology?

Got a message from jfield of Left Coast Unitarian about doing Unitarian Universalist theology. He, too, thinks it is important, but in thinking about going and getting a degree in theology he finds himself less than enthusiastic.

Getting a doctorate isn’t the only way to do theology, I contend. I believe the person who had the most influence on Unitarian Universalist theology in the past century was… Sophia Fahs. Her excellent series of church school curriculum books helped to shape a theology of naturalistic theism that was also receptive to humanism. I was in church school a little past the height of the Sophia Fahs curriculum, but when I look at her books now, it’s clear how her curriculum books shaped me. Jesus the Carpenter’s Son helped me think of Jesus as a fully human political and religious thinker. The Church across the Street shaped my understanding of how I should relate to other faith traditions. Martin and Judy (which my mother taught when she taught Sunday school in the 50’s) has me seeing religion growing out of everyday experiences.

I might put Kenneth Patton second to Sophia Fahs in terms of theological influence. Patton was a humanist who believed in the power of symbols and liturgy. He developed exciting new ways of doing worship services without needing a reference to God, Goddess, C’thulhu, or whatever. You could argue that his experimentation with high-church humanism laid the groundwork for contemporary UU theology. His use of American folk tunes for hymns has, I believe, profoundly shaped the way we conceive of worship — after Kenneth Patton, we have to go beyond music composed by “dead white men” in the high Western tradition. If we would pay more attention, I think we’d see that Patton opened us to amazing possibilities in multiculturalism (even if his personal approach had a whiff of colonialism).

Oh, and forget trying to base theology on the “Seven Principles.” While Christian theologians do tend to ground their theology in interpretations of their sacred texts, the “Seven Principles” are excerpts from the UUA’s bylaws, and — alas — lack the poetry and human depth of the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. The “Seven Principles” function fairly well as a profession of faith (thought I still prefer the old Universalist Winchester Profession for sheer poetry, even though I pretty much disagree with it) — but the “SevenPrinciples” are definitely not theology.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder if one of the things keeping Unitarian Universalists from doing theology in our local congregations is that we make the false assumption that the “Seven Principles” are sufficient. They aren’t. They say “what,” but not “why” or “how” or “when.”

To answer the question in the title: Yes, Virginia, you should be doing theology, too.