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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

On Canon

It's common now to refer to whether something really happened in a movie or TV 'universe' as being 'in canon' or 'out of canon.' This comes from the use of the terms 'canon' and 'canonical' in religious usage, referring to writings considered reliable representations of a particular faith. The word 'canon' itself is derived from a word for 'reed,' and was used to refer to a measuring stick. Whether some religious truth-claim was to be believed or not depended on how it measured up to scripture, and so what constituted scripture had to be defined somewhere along the way. 

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, it suddenly had a massive amount of tangled and somewhat incoherent IP on its hands. Here's how they cleaned it up:

As of April 25, 2014, the only previously published materials that are considered canon are the six Star Wars films, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series and film, novels (where they align with what is seen on screen), and Part I of the short story Blade Squadron. Meanwhile, the Expanded Universe is no longer considered canon[2] and was re-termed as the "Legends" brand. Most Star Wars material released after April 25, 2014—with some exceptions—is composed in collaboration with the Lucasfilm Story Group, making it part of the "new canon."

Although it's commonly misunderstood that a church council defined the canon of Christianity, it wasn't so straightforward. What actually happened was that from the time of the apostles and into the third century C.E. a multitude of different writings circulated among Christian communities, and there wasn't any one defined version of Christianity that was considered correct in all places. There were churches that claimed some connection to an apostle or more, and churches that were fostered or founded by such churches, and other churches that also claimed some ancient connection or greater hold on 'the truth.' It used to be common to hear about Gnostic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, but again that's too simplistic. Many groups fit neatly into neither category.  However, over the course of time, with debates and conversions, one group became dominant. 

The proto-orthodox church, through an extended process of localized discernment over time, came to a general consensus on the books of the New Testament as we now have them. Really, the only significant variation in terms of the New Testament is with the Orthodox Tewahedo canon, that has a few extra texts. This sorting out of canon is seen by some as miraculous, though I suspect the leadership of the episcopacy had more than a little to do with ensuring that books which supported their understanding of the faith were accepted, and others rejected. The role of the episcopacy itself is a matter for a separate post. 

The Jewish Study Bible offers, in its commentary notes, a perspective I find useful in understanding scriptural canon:

In various ways, canonical status for a book or group of books has to do with the community's views of their centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration. Over time these characteristics have become connected, inseparably so in some traditions; yet they are not identical, and though they overlap, they must still be viewed distinctly. (Berlin et al., 2004)

Within Unitarian Universalism there is no set, defined canon, and that's by design. While our predecessor churches originally held to the Protestant Bible, that was set aside as a standard by the time of the consolidation of the two denominations mid-twentieth century. Personally, I've noted that poet Mary Oliver and translations of Rumi tend to have a lasting popularity, and there are readings offered in the back of the primary hymnal used that have something of a scriptural ring to them, but really there's no consistency. In fact, it's more common for people to have their own personal canons, whether they think of them as such or (more likely) not. That is, texts, songs, films, and so forth that they find themselves referring back to from time to time.

What this means is that while other Western religions have specified texts around which a community gathers, no such thing exists for Unitarian Universalists. I'm not sure how important that is, as we seem to do okay without it. I grew up Catholic, hearing the lectionary readings at every Mass until the main stories were engraved in my mind, but whether that made any substantive difference to my sense of connection to the community is uncertain. After all, I did skip out at age 17 for a more evangelical outlook, and that only after my own study and reflection. 

With no shared canon, it can't be said that Unitarian Universalists have a shared sense of what a 'revelation' might be. We tend to hold a more humanistic outlook, though not across the board and many would like to deny it, and such questions are not what we typically center among ourselves. We have a much more this-worldly perspective that tends to keep us away from debating the nature of gods and whether there's an afterlife. It's hard to fuss over such literally immaterial things when we live in a world with systemic oppression, corruption in high places, and so much suffering and injustice. 

As for me, I find myself at this point in my life incapable of believing that any deity as described by classic Christian interpretation could possibly exist. Whether a trinity or not, a god described as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent would not be so limited as to be rendered incapable of immediately delivering us from evil. Indeed, if said god were omnipresent, omniscient, and omnimalevolent, and yet still somehow restricted, the world remains exactly as we would expect it to be. That being the case, no purported revelation seems worth the time to take seriously, particularly in light of the fact that our human condition really only started to improve substantially with the advent of the scientific method for arriving at facts and solutions. Had revelation provided us with warnings about microscopic bacteria or forbidden human enslavement in no uncertain terms, then it could perhaps be more worth of acceptance.

But then, is the function of a canon really to serve as a font of actual information, or is it something else? In practice a canon functions as a common ground of understanding for a community. Thus the debates among Trekkies and within other fandoms about what's in canon and what isn't. They have a common vocabulary and shared narratives that they use to engage with one another socially. In the religious arena having a canon that's agreed upon doesn't always mean everyone has to agree with it. In the biblical book of Genesis the patriarch Abraham actually debated and negotiated with God, and he's one seen as a friend of God. Within the text of the Bible itself we encounter different voices that often disagree with one another. How then could it be wrong for a community to share a canon and at the same time have the space and grace to allow for arguments with the text itself?

If I were a theistically-minded Christian and compelled to choose, I'd borrow the perspective held by Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

However, Community of Christ has insisted since the time of Joseph Smith III that what the authors of scripture wrote is not revelation itself. They wrote works of literature that are pointers to revelation. Former member of the Community of Christ First Presidency F. Henry Edwards wrote, “Revelation cannot be fully expressed in words. Words are but tools, and must be quickened by the illumination of the Spirit which shines in the hearts and minds of the readers….Revelation, then, is one thing, and the record of revelation is another.” Former apostle Arthur A. Oakman made the following observation in an important 1966 article: 
The prophets saw the movement of God in history. It was there before they saw it. Had they never apprehended it, it would still have been there. But it became revelation to them when they appreciated this divine movement. What we have in the Old and New Testaments is not, therefore, revelation. It is a record made by the preceptor. …There are, then, strictly speaking, no revealed truths. There are “truths of revelation”—statements of principles, that is, which stem from the actual revelatory experiences. 
In its theology, ethics, and pastoral practice, Community of Christ believes it is essential to make this kind of distinction between revelation and human beings’ varied literary accounts of revelation. Without this distinction, communities are always tempted to worship not the Living God, but their texts, traditions, and interpretations, which can bring and has brought great harm into people’s lives. (Chvala-Smith, 2020)

What we find among white conservative evangelicals in the United States is precisely the situation described in that last paragraph: they commit bibliolatry by paying lip-serving to it without really understanding it or committing to live according to it. If instead they were able to see the Bible as the result of attempts to put into various genres of writing the sense of what they understood as having come from God, there could be a great deal more humility and less beating others over the head with interpretations. Then again, perhaps that's simply an enduring difficulty stemming from the human condition that will manifest regardless. 

Attending General Assembly I've come to suspect that for some Unitarian Universalists they see Robert's Rules of Orders in roughly the position of canon (and that's not a joke), and as I mentioned above there are some texts and songs that we tend to favor collectively. And yet we carry on seemingly well without a canon. It can certainly be useful to have a shared standard as a resource for homilies and liturgies, providing a common ground for everyone in the community. It can also be a source of misery, as we see in the fandoms when some take others to task for not conforming to a particular understanding or appreciation of canon. Except that religion isn't meant to be a hobby. Rather, a way of life. That's not so easy to walk away from, as if leaving a fandom could ever be easy for someone either. 

Berlin, A., Brettler, M. Z., & Fishbane, M. (2004). The Jewish study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation. Oxford University Press.

Chvala-Smith, A. J. (2020). Exploring Community of Christ Basic Beliefs: A Commentary. Herald Publishing House.