Thursday, July 23, 2020

Unbinding Scripture

For the most part, Unitarian Universalists as a whole aren't scripture readers these days. Yes, individuals have their scriptures from one or more traditions, and many put other literary works in that role without considering them 'scripture,' but in congregational life outside of Christian-identifying churches there is rarely any consistent incorporation of scripture. That tends to work, in my opinion, because we are diverse in terms of perspectives. There are Humanists, to be sure, but also people who left Christian churches behind and simply don't find meaning or value there. I'm thinking as well of people who have experienced real trauma in religious circles, such as the self-identifying 'exvangelicals.' For some of them, special emphasis on scripture can be triggering and even panic-inducing. So, is there any role for scripture in UU circles?

"Though we may not view the New Testament and Hebrew Scriptures as divinely inspired, the Qur'an as dictated by God, or the Vedas as apaurusheyatva, we can appreciate the texts as gifts to humanity. We understand that, through the ages, these works have shaped whole societies and civilizations. We can honor and appreciate them as sources of wisdom that speak to us across generations and cultures." 1 

Although I'm a Humanist, I have stepped back a bit from seeking a Humanist-specific congregational type. It is excellent for a congregation to offer a Humanist service and foster Humanist gatherings and events, I think, but I have found the thought of a purely Humanist congregation somewhat limiting. While Washington Ethical Society is my go-to UU congregation (they are also affiliated with Ethical Culture) when I'm in Washington, DC, it's unlikely I would make that wonderful group my 'church home' were I to move into the area. The same goes for the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis. I love hearing news of what they're doing, and hope for their success, but doubt I'd place membership if I moved into the area. The reason, as I've already indicated, is that I suspect I'd feel restricted.

"Many contemporary people find ancient writings culturally distant and irrelevant. Indeed, taken out of the context in which it was written, scripture can be hard to make sense of. To some of us, it seems rigid or, worse, a tool with which elite groups have maintained power and order, suppressed those who are different and forced people to follow narrow paths of behavior." 2 

While I was raised Catholic, for over two decades of my adult life I was evangelical. I went from conservative evangelical to fundamentalist to progressive before finding my way out the door (that progression is not a 'given' and the concept of a 'slippery slope' is a poor one, by the way). When my faith first evaporated I thought I was done with the whole thing. Seeing the Bible and religion generally through naturalistic eyes, I figured I'd be a science-centric Humanist. I am a post-theistic Humanist, and I do value an evidence-based outlook that prioritizes knowledge gained through scientific methods, and yet I also enjoy mining ancient texts for insights on life as a human being in this world, as well as actively critiquing and analyzing what I find in those writings. If you're read other posts in this blog, you'll have an idea of what I'm talking about.

"Because they are integral to the life of a community, scriptures change and evolve over time. New translations take the place of the old; religious leaders change the canon, as Luther did, cutting some books or chapters out or letting new ones in. New religious sects arise and add to existing scriptures. There's an idea in Western popular culture that scripture is by definition immutable and therefore irrelevant to the times we live in. Traditionalists assert that texts are rigid, unchanging and unchangeable. Study of the history of texts generally contradicts that view." 3

Several years ago I joined Sunday Assembly NYC as a volunteer organizer, and then as a board member. I loved the group we had, and yearned to make this a meaningful expression of contemporary non-theistic Humanism. Out ideals of 'live better, help often, wonder more' rang very true to me. Had we found more volunteers to keep things going, I would have gladly continued on with that effort. At the same time, the thought nagged at me that in that environment any kind of religious writing, and 'scriptures' especially, would be anathema. In Sunday Assembly religion is set aside. My 'out' for that would have been maintaining involvement with a UU congregation at the same time, I suppose.

"The scholar Norman Gottwald has compared the development of the Hebrew Scriptures to a huge river system, in which various books emerged, grew together, and sometimes even separated. While the mouth of the river may look like a huge, singular entity, the network of streams, tributaries, and branches that formed it covers a far-reaching area, tremendously complex and hard to map. If we read closely, we can still see the seams of these inter-weavings in the contradictions, repetitions, and changes in the narrative voice of the biblical text." 4

There is very truly a need for an value in having congregations that are thoroughly humanistic. Unlike the stereotype, based sadly on real situations, such bodies don't have to be mere lecture halls. Sunday Assembly, Oasis, and others have shown us that it is possible to have an upbeat, interactive community without the supernatural. For people such as I described above, who don't want anything to do with supernatural religion, but who feel a need for something bigger than themselves to be a part of, such non-theistic communities can be perfect. The same can be said of UU congregations that are historically theistic and Christian. For those who find that to be the best environment for them to connect with others while pursuing truth and meaning responsibly, a UU Christian church can be ideal. 

"In contrast, Unitarian Universalists recognize the human origins of all religious texts. While we acknowledge that humans may be inspired by God, or by their understanding of God, to create—or even to collect or edit—the texts of their tradition, we don't place one book above others, at least not officially. Particular Unitarian Universalists may, indeed, elevate one book over another, but as a religious tradition, we have no stated canon." 5 

Individually, how might UUs handle scripture? This is a central concern of the Rev. Jonalu Johnston's book, "Scripture Unbound: A Unitarian Universalist Approach." Through sections on Traditional Tools and Readings of Scripture, A Unitarian Universalist Take on Scripture, and Using Scripture, Johnston explains history and methodologies for communal and individual approaches to religious texts. Not just leaving it to theory, she intersperses the book with regular readings from various religious traditions. While Hebrew and Christian scripture features largely in this book, others are included and discussed. Personally, I appreciated that Johnstone didn't attempt to assert more familiarity than appropriate with other traditions with which she is less familiar. I also was glad to see that she acknowledged and incorporated oral traditions as well. For 'bookish' UUs these can be easy to overlook, despite their significance. 

"Contextual theologies encourage people living with oppression to read texts searching for images of themselves and to criticize how the texts have been used against them. Reception history—the study of how texts have been interpreted over time—plays a role in this process. The goal is to discover and empower the self within a particular identity, leading to liberation from the diminished images that have been presented by an oppressive culture—and maybe even to salvation through shared social action spurred by new insights into old stories." 6

For people interested in the topic for their own use, or perhaps in small groups, I highly recommend this book. Congregational worship can be a far more tricky aspect to consider, but experienced ministers could enjoy this refresher as well for corporate worship or personal spiritual practice. While Unitarian Universalists are not bound to one book, and we celebrate a living tradition, I think we do well to embrace both the knowledge found through science, and the wisdom attainable through the religious and non-religious literature of all times. We can and should live with both head and heart.

Scripture Unbound page references:
1 pp.  xiv-xv
2 p. xv
p. 7
4 p. 14
5 p. 31
p.61