Friday, April 13, 2007

To dance like no one was watching

Jamie Goodwin at Trivium is always a good read, but his recent post Speaking In Tongues resonated with me even more than usual.

Like Jamie, I was raised in a fundamental tradition- Apostolic in his case, Baptist in mine. After trying a pose of atheism- which my soul could no more accept than fundamentalism- I ended up as a NeoPagan and a UU. And like Jamie, I harbor no hurts or ill will toward the faith of my childhood, and treasure the time spent there.

Jamie and I are in the minority in that position- the vast majority of UUs I have met who are former Christians are contemptous of their Christian upbringing. They seem to believe that they have grown above and beyond those forms of Christianity, that those beliefs were lower rungs on the ladder to higher understanding. Some will state openly and some will only imply what most clearly believe- that the old fashioned John 3:16 Christianity is for the intellectually or emotionally impaired. Not me. I have no illusions that I could fence with the likes of C.S. Lewis or W. F. Buckley. My path is not better than theirs, I have not grown beyond them, I have merely grown away from them. I am on a different path because I have different emotional and spiritual needs, not because I am more intelligent than they.

Because we do not despise where we came from, Jamie and I are both capable of seeing that in some ways, modern UU has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Our horror of ritual, for one thing. UUs are almost unique in shunning ritual; nearly all other religions recognize that ritual is a unifying factor, that it is a trigger for joy and comraderie. The ritual that Jamie misses is speaking in tongues- one of the very rituals most ridiculed by those who believe they are above such trailer-trash holy-roller stuff. Of course, those people have no theological arguments for their attitudes, merely cultural prejudice; they equate dour New England reserve with intellectual advancement, and “making a joyful noise” with more primitive cultures worthy of a “National Geographic” article.

They are missing what makes “being taken by the spirit” one of the oldest and most universal of religious rituals. Whether it is a VooDoo congregate channelling a Loa, or a Wiccan “drawing down the Moon”, or a Pentacostal “speaking in tongues”. or a Baptist “making a joyful noise”, they are letting go, “dancing as if no one were watching, singing as if no one were listening”. It is a catharsis, and more- it is your concious connecting with your subconcious, leaving you more whole and healthy than you were before. It is a revelatory experience; you cannot hide internal conflicts from yourself during such an experience.

But alas, it is an experience the average UU will never know. Or if they do, if they find a safe place in which they can truly let go, to bring forth what is within and share, it will not be within the confines of a UU service.


Kaleigh said...

I was just having a similar conversation with my dad this weekend. I was raised (happily) Presbyterian, in fairly liberal congregations. My parents are still (happily) Presbyterian, and they're happy that I have found a church home.

As we drove to my church for Easter, we discussed how there seem to be a few different kinds of UUs, with the largest groups being the "recovering Christians" who have a big chip on their shoulders, and the "grew away from Christianity" folks who look back at their upbringing in the Christian church fondly and who sometimes crave just a bit more structure and liturgy.

I fall squarely in the second camp. If I could make my church feel more like "church", that would be great. However, I'm not willing to sacrifice the fellowship with people who mostly see things through a similar lens, so I won't be going back to a mainline Protestant church (except when visiting my parents).

Good post. I'm glad there are more of us out there.

Jamie Goodwin said...

Hi Joel, great take, and thanks for the link!

You know I was a Baptist too in High School, even considered becomeing a Baptist minster.

Somehow the whole being gay thing didn't mesh with that though. I also cherish my times in the Baptist church, theologically they tick me off sometimes (the whole perpetuity insistance for instance) but there definantly is something free and wonderful about them.

PeaceBang said...

It's funny, or thing with ritual. A lot of UUs freak out about it, as you say, but a lot of them LOVE it and like to make up rituals to do in worship. The problem is, these rituals are unmoored from tradition, not really theologically grounded, and enacted in amateurish ways that embarrass a lot of the congregation.
I've been watching this latter phenomenon happen for the last fifteen years or so (and have led some lame rituals myself in my day) and wondering: what makes a ritual really *work?* Is it years of repetition that give a ritual its resonance? The solemnity with which it is performed? The legitimizing force of theological belief that must undergird it?

Most UU rituals I have participated in have the whiff of children's play to them. I am therefore always incredibly moved and grateful when I see us create a ritual that has transformative power, aesthetic elegance and religious depth.

Oh, and hey: if you've never seen a UU preach unashamedly about Jesus (as you said somewhere in an earlier post), I wanted to send you my Palm Sunday sermon. You might like it. Let me know if you're interested.

PeaceBang said...

Pardon me...
I should have said that "a lot of these rituals are unmoored from tradition."

Joel Monka said...

You're quite right that rituals invented whole cloth, with no creedal or historical background can sound like just playing. Still... repeat visitors to my congregation frequently comment on the fact that we do have ritual, and how unusual that is- and all it consists of is lighting the chalice and reading aloud the covenant that's engraved in foot-tall letters on the wall behind the podium. Now, any other church would consider repeating a 22 word covenant so minimal as to be more equivalent to an opening welcome than to a ritual, but amongst us that's a note-worthy, unique ritual! Our ritual is more than 100 years old, though, and so seems utterly natural to us.

I simply cannot imagine any UU congregation ever developing a ritual that would permit members to freely "make a joyful noise", however- I believe the institutional reserve is too great to overcome.

Joel Monka said...

I almost forgot- I would LOVE to see your Palm Sunday sermon!