Thursday, July 13, 2006

Faithing Lessons

Turtle Mountain comments that s'he does not think it appropriate for a non-creedal faith community to guide a person's faith development, only to encourage it.

This makes the assumption that our faith is like a flower bud, which will unfold in the fullness of time, if just given the encouragement of a little water.

I say that the development of faith is much more like the ability to swim. I suppose that it is possible to learn to swim (or at least to stay alive in the water) on one's own, but the parent who says to the child, "Just jump in. I don't want to guide you, just encourage you," is unthinkable.

Now it is true that everyone has their own style of swimming, their own comfort level in the water, their own favorite strokes. What makes Unitarian Universalism nearly unique amongst western religions is that we enjoy a pool filled with folks who are swimming in their own sweet way and not insisting that everyone do the back stroke and only the back stroke.

But we still have to teach each other some of the basics of swimming, or we're just not doing our job.

We teach lots of strokes, we help people who have previously been afraid to learn to float. We support those who are learning and sometimes rescue those who are sinking.

One of the most important strokes we teach is "pay attention to your own experience, and make sure your world view and faith honor that experience."

We do best at honoring our own experiences if we have been given words to express them, if we feel safe in speaking of them, and if others are talking about their deep experiences, too. Those things don't happen as often as they should, even in clergy-led congregations and often don't happen at all in lay lead congregations. But faithng lessons is the job of a faith community, even a non-creedal one.


Jess said...

This is brilliant, thank you.

I would add the importance of learning to live in covenantal relationship - how not to drown those around you! One can't be simply encouraged to act in affirmation and love; it takes practice and intentionality.

Turtle Mountain said...

I still think it no accident that the first image you used was to characterize the relationship as one of a parent to a child. That is patronizing. We advertise Unitarian Universalism as a non-creedal community which encourages adults in their own search. To maintain, in any way, that they will also be "guided" and "helped" toward that faith both assumes and implies that they are not sufficient to make that search. I believe they are. Should they, in their search, choose to ask me what I believe, I will tell them. I will not nudge them toward my beliefs behind a mask of a parent's responsibility toward a little child. To me, that is the direct contradiction of what Unitarian Universalism is about. Notice that I said "to me." I am not attempting to guide you or nudge you.

LT said...

Turtle Mountain,
I have read the original post and don't see the heavy hand that you seem to be seeing in it.
Ministerial leadership in a non-creedal free church tradition is not a content-less facilitation or encouragement of each individual's exploration. Ministers should have clear theological views and their own grounded approaches to spiritual development. And they should base their ministerial work on those views. What makes a church *non-creedal* is that the individual is free to accept or reject the views and opinions of the minister, not that the minister is restrained from putting them forward.
Of course, there has to be a mutual respect and courtesy in all interactions.

Turtle Mountain said...


Provided several things are kept in mind. Many fellowships intentionally have no ministers. Secondly, a minister's opinion must always be clearly stated as that - an ordinary opinion. Ours is not a tradition in which "all members are equal but ministers are more equal than others."

We seem to have lost sight of the actual incident - a woman who did not believe in the afterlife but also had experiences which sometimes left her wondering. I asked a friend - a UU friend - if this is a common and respectible and responsible position for a mature human being. The reply was that of course it was; in fact, a belief shared by many, many perfectly adult, intelligent, and responsible persons throughout history. Why is this "sad?" Why does this woman require help or guidance?

ms. kitty said...

As a minister, I take exception to some of what you say, Turtle Mountain. It's true that many fellowships have no minister and that is because they don't want one, which is fine.

But ministers are like teachers in a congregation where they have been asked to serve. We have studied extensively on the topics of religion, Unitarian Universalism, spirituality, history, preaching, ethics, pastoral care, and theology, and our knowledge is offered freely to the congregation we serve. Call that guidance, if you will. It is not "just another opinion"; it is more like a rocket scientist offering an opinion about rockets when asked.

Of course no one can force a person to accept guidance or another's opinion. Few ministers in our tradition force-feed congregants.

And "primus inter pares" is a phrase I have heard many times to describe UU ministers (and other clergy as well). It means "first among equals" and implies that a person has been democratically selected to lead a group of people who are peers but who do not have the special characteristics or knowledge needed to be a skilled leader. So I disagree with your statement about "being more equal than others"; I think you've got it wrong.

Turtle Mountain said...

This piqued my curiosity. My profession includes historical research. The first legal definition I could find for "primus inter pares" was "the ideal relationship of a lord with his vassals." Poking back earlier, it goes back at least to claims which brought about the elevation of Augustus as Caesar upon the murder of Julius. It was used by Roman Catholicism to elevate the Pope and excommunicate the Patriarch, and by the Byzantine Church to elevate the Patriarch and excommunicate the Pope. All in all, the whole concept has had a very, very sordid history. I can understand why you ministers find it to be heart warming, but you are usually elected at a meeting which quivers in desperate hope that it can scare up a quorum.

Steamhead said...

I understand where you're coming from, Turtle Mountain, and I agree, sort of, in principle, mostly. We are all free and encouraged to develop our own spiritual lives as much as we can.

But I was raised in a tradition without trained ministers, a fundamentalist Christian sect in which one worked one's way "to the top" (being invited to preach or to serve as a regular pastor) by leading a pious life, reading the Bible a lot and impressing the other elders with one's oratorical skills. There are limitations to that model that are similar to living in a small town with no UU congregation.

There was no seminary, no Bible scholarship (other than reading Josephus' history)and no training in counseling, church history, etc. As a result, these congregations tended to be comprised of people born into the denomination or who married someone who was born into it. There was no other reason to go there, since even the sense of community (which was a poor substitute for pastoral counseling and covenant groups) was very closed. The theology was, to me, totally static, as were the spiritual lives of most of the members.

Having a spiritual teacher is a gift, a blessing. Even if that teacher is not your personal guru, just being around someone who devotes her (or his) time to contemplation of the spiritual life of a group is still a blessing. Living in Gallup or Mora or Podunk means you probably do hot get that gift. What you have there is a group of people who, like you, need and want some deeper spiritual experience but don't have the time or the training to dig in the right places for it. If the small groups I've been involved in are any indication, they're pretty static spiritually, too, like those fundamentalists.

If a larger church can provide the additional depth to such a community, then it is to be encouraged, in my opinion. Those small towns will never develop a deep and vital UU atmosphere if left on their own, so why not export some, if we have it to spare?

"Primus inter pares" is an interesting linguistic anomaly, in that a neutral or benign meaning seems to have transplanted a negative historical meaning. (It usually works the other way around, e.g. we never call domestic animals "cock" or "pussy" anymore). But let's not get sidetracked on the historical linguistics. The minister is there as a result of inclination most of us don't have and training most of us haven't had. If she wants to share them with people who will never have access to them otherwise, I say "go girl!"

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