Thursday, January 10, 2019


The political force of ecological economic matters in terms of what the "middle class" requires is key to American congregations: conformity, achievement, respectability -- and the reciprocal and necessary constant rebellion against all this either by individuals who are temperamentally rebellious or who have been abandoned, betrayed and damaged by the mainstream ideas of how "middle class" is achieved and maintained.  I came to these ideas in part because of a decade-long career with the Unitarian Universalist Association, a group of congregations supporting ENLIGHTENMENT VALUES:  "A European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent exponents include Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith."  (wiki)  

In other words, precedents based on outstanding male figures who were often academic.  These persons were the basis for the "learned ministry" of UUA history, or what some call "New England Unitarianism."  The modern group also includes California "hot tub" styles, the Prairie Humanists, Goldwater Unitarians, the MidWestern near-Christian origin of Universalism, and other subgroups that threaten the identity of the mainstream UU.

The main unification of the UUA has been its socio-economic identity, which is middle-class or better, educated, professional or quasi-professional, well-housed and clothed.  The ministry imitated those brilliant male thinkers as best they could.  Today the backlash includes both women (maybe the ones who used to marry or at least sleep with clergy) and People of Color who intend to rise in status and accomplishment.  The clergy include women, bright and ungirdled, often finding themselves suddenly marriageable -- if by same sex partners.

My approach is not meant to contradict anything above. It is as based on the way we understand “reality” and “spirituality” today, so it will probably change when our understanding of our world and the way we perceive it changes. At present those changes are unimaginable. 
Two anthropologists (Von Gennep and Victor Turner) are my sources for the three-step metaphor of going over a “limen” (threshold) into a state called “liminal” and then returning back into the secular world. I am matching that with the research on “neuronal brain platform” function (see Gazzaniga) to insist that “liminal time or place” is a true brain state in which previously assumed categories can be questioned and either changed or confirmed. This “liminal” state can be seen in brain-wave recordings, neuron impulses, hormonal changes in the blood, and fMRI tests. It can also be felt by the person and is either identical or close to what Eliade called “the sacred.” 
Sociologists could explain why a denomination open to the larger society would turn to humanism in the Thirties. Ordinary governmental resources appeared to have failed. The Depression was a general and complex movement but for the Unitarians in particular it crystallized thought about worship services. Dean Sperry at Harvard was proposing a three-part theory of worship “arc” based on the syllogism of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” Then along came Unitarian Von Ogden Vogt, who developed a traditional scheme while changing the terms of the parts of the order of service. This is parallel to his attempt to make First Unitarian Church of Chicago a European cathedral in form while converting the content -- even the icons -- to those of industrial progress. He could not imagine that progress would unfold beyond what was considered a peak at the time.
Vogt was a humanist and honored human cultures in their grandest dimensions, but for him the industrial revolution was still as far as his mind could reach. He had little notion of quantum mechanics or the birth of stars. He knew nothing about the Higgs boson and neither did anyone else. The powerful marriage of physics and poetry had not quite happened yet. 
THE CALL TO WORSHIP: “Every service which has a call to worship begins with the state of the worshipper in mind rather than the presentation of divinity. Exhortation or Statement of Intention are alternative beginnings.”
(“We gather this morning to acknowledge the beauty of the world and the shelter of our community.” The bells ring. A procession enters.”) 
VISION: “An awareness of All Things
HUMILITY: “The sense of diminution  (Some Christians call this the Confession of Sins.) 
VITALITY: “Out of the world of frustration and weakness into the tides of full and complete life.”  Some Christians call this the “Assurance of Pardon.” 
RECOLLECTION: “The heightened imagination begins to operate on earthly scenes . . .a wider range, a fuller review, possibly covering a retrospect and forecast of many years and all their affairs.”
In a Christian context this might be the reading of scripture. 
ILLUMINATION: “Problems are clarified and wishes reordered.  (For Christians the sermon.) 
DEDICATION: “The urgence to dedication is all but irresistible.”
PEACE: “Surely there should be at the end of such a supreme course of experience an integrity of being that is reconciliation and peace.” Benediction. 
Vogt used this sequence to develop many actual worship services, carefully and poetically written. He was ambivalent about his relationship to Christianity, wishing to keep the high Gothic forms. Whether this is a synthesis or a collision is open to comment but it was convincing enough to energize his congregation and rally their resources. At any rate, Vogt was working for a universal worship pattern with an integrity of its own that was drawn directly from human experience, but also heavily influenced by European and especially British models.
“. . . the outer form of the exercise of worship should parallel the inner order of the experience of worship. . .If the principle be a correct one, the first task of an artist in worship is to analyze the experience. It may be opposed to this suggestion that there is no typical religious experience of worship, that the many varieties of religious experience cannot be reduced to the general norm. . . I only express my view that in the main there is a comprehending normal experience which covers all these major differences. However varied the situation of the worshippers in mind, body or estate, however varied the approaches, whether mental or emotional or moral, the essential psychology of the experience is identical.” 
ABRAXAS At this url is an essay written by a group of ministers and lay people who belonged to the Unitarian Universalist Association. Now it is part of the UUA website called “Worship Web,” which is particularly useful in this denomination because many of the small congregations are lay-led and don’t have a trunk full of things to read, or any real certainty about how to go about organizing worship.  Because it is based on Enlightenment thought, which is often expressed in writing, much of what is offered is print.
Two denominations, the Unitarians and the Universalists, had merged in 1961. They were quite different in style and somewhat different in content, so many things needed to be negotiated all over again. The Unitarian Abraxans related to the Mass form, which had become a “hymn sandwich” when the Synaxis overtook the Eucharist -- words overtaking acts after many Unitarians dropped communion, following the lead of Ralph Waldo Emerson. They also responded positively to the Transcendentalist regard for the major Asian religions and tried to become sophisticated about their traditional books. It would be interesting to propose that the Synaxis was essentially Unitarian -- all reasoning and word -- while the Eucharist was essentially Universalist, an expression of compassion.
When the Abraxan Worship Reader was assembled in 1980, it was reacting to a couple of decades of tumbling change in UU liturgies. Open to the culture, the denomination could not help being subject to the same forces of dissension, calls for renewal, demands for social action, and obsession with psychology. Some people were exasperated enough to try to revert to earlier and happier experiences in Christian congregations. Abraxas undertook to seek a common axis, a point of reference. 
THE REVEREND VERN BARNET, who always had a taste for the comparative religion discipline with its close attention to the underlying forces as well as varieties of detail and ornamentation, did the editing. He began with an excerpt from Von Ogden Vogt’s “Art and Religion” in which Vogt described the key principle he found in Isaiah. Vogt also calls on St. Augustine to describe this sequence of “penitence and salvation.” 
Thirty years after the Abraxas group, fifty years after von Ogden Vogt, contemporary seminary students are still stumbling across this work and wondering how to revive it. The terms of the culture have changed. Now, instead of the anti-authoritarian ferment and anti-European focus of the mid-twentieth century when “God died,” post-modernism has endorsed all that, codified and exhausted the mourning. Now we are looking at the planet from the perspective of the Entity Formerly Known as God or at least an Angel -- namely, outer space. We witness while nations implode, international corporations control nations, and the environment is ravaged. But we are not sure what our testimony ought to be. Perhaps we can only pray. In that case, liturgy can make prayer more powerful. 
Rev. Barnet is recently at but more recently was baptized as an Episcopalian without leaving the UU ministry. He leads the Community Resource for Exploring Spirituality. Abraxas, named for an early god-concept, thought of itself as a quasi-monastic order in a joking way. They declared themselves “spiritual” but seemed to define that as “interfaith” among the major religious institutions, including those that were Humanist.
Abraxas loved paraphernalia, vestments, smells and bells, secret names. They were traditional, but would mix traditions within their prescribed ceremonies by using a reading from Hinduism, or a ritual from an obscure corner of Christianity. It’s a style that came from Sixties/Seventies comparative religion studies. Things could get a little confused. I remember a time at the UUA general assembly, when some Buddhist priests had been invited to perform their liturgy. The audience, wishing to do the right thing, imitated the priests by standing or sitting or whatever. (Paper fans were involved so people improvised with their programs.)  This disconcerted the priests, who came from a tradition where the important people do the rituals while the congregants merely observe. 
Abraxas was an admirable experiment in re-invigorating the medieval models by reaching out for world-wide words and practices, something like the New England Transcendentalists minus the universal oversoul. But Abraxas was not particularly aware of sociological constraints. They were never going to kill roosters in church even though Santeria might do that. They were never going to use Plains Indian Sun Lodge ordeals in which their chest muscles are torn with skewers. And they were not likely to throw up their hands, speak in tongues and fall on the floor. Worship styles are almost always class-based and so are denominations. 
Another humanist gifted at creating content was Kenneth Leo Patton, a Universalist in love with the arts. Without challenging the structure of the service, he was able to make the rational, naturalistic sciences into poetry by allowing the upwelling of the spirit to come into his words. The church building he encouraged was the Frank Lloyd Wright building for the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin. It would not be far off to say he matched Wright in iconoclasm and narcissism. (They were also both short.) He self-published an enormous amount of material for Sunday services, all of them very popular. Many were new words for old familiar hymn tunes. 

God was replaced by the cosmos on the terms known at his time and one wall of the sanctuary was a portrait of the nearest nebula.  What Patton knew was that entering or leaving this state of liminality and merger with the universe is deeply entwined with sensory cues and that they touch something real in the person that can’t be accessed in other ways, not even words. They are emergent from the ecology that has created the local culture. 


Chas Clifton said...

Just to let you know, I got a 404 on this link:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I reckon the old guys are dead and the new guys want THEIR ideas celebrated. There is a search box if you really want this stuff. Otherwise -- the telephone.

I only curtsied. They're all Enlightenment fossils.

Prairie Mary