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Toward a Humanist Language of Reverence

General Assembly 2004 Event 4016

Presenters: Rev. David Bumbaugh, Associate Professor of Ministry and Director of Field Education at Meadville/Lombard Theological School; Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, MN

"We need a language of reverence that would best represent our movement," said the Rev. David Bumbaugh, of Meadville/Lombard Theological School, who is one of Unitarian Universalism's best-known proponents of a humanist theology.

Speaking to a large audience packed into one of the larger rooms in the Long Beach Convention Center, Bumbaugh reminded his listeners of the recent debate within Unitarian Universalism about a "language of reverence." After the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), was misquoted by the Fort Worth Star Telegram as saying he wanted to re-introduce the word "God" into the principles and purposes of the UUA bylaws, Bumbaugh said he heard "a buzz of angry debate within Unitarian Universalism."

In fact, Sinkford had been inspired to talk about a "language of reverence" or a "vocabulary of reverence" after hearing a lecture given by Bumbaugh. As reported in the Star Telegram, Sinkford, in his January 12, 2003, sermon actually said, "'religious language' doesn't have to mean 'God talk.' And I'm not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language." The Star Telegram published a correction of their article.

Bumbaugh pointed out that "rather than responding to press reports, it would have been best to find out what Bill had actually said." Bumbaugh also reported that since the debate about a language of reverence began, he has been asked to speak numerous times on the topic, and that "for me, the language of reverence has become something of a cottage industry." Nonetheless, Bumbaugh said he welcomes an ongoing discussion about "a liturgical language that might better serve our movement."

However, said Bumbaugh, "It has occurred to me somehow that the focus of the debate has shifted and become very fuzzy." Instead of talking about a language of reverence per se, the debate has shifted towards the "need for a language of comfort and solace." But while comfort and solace are a central part of religion, Bumbaugh argued that reverence is something different. "It's a vocabulary [that talks about] our place in this wonderful, awesome, dangerous, beautiful world."

Bumbaugh also noted that almost from the beginning of the debate, an assumption was made that a call for a language of reverence necessarily meant a return to "God language." He said this is an incorrect assumption, and that it is not necessary to return to traditional categories.

The debate about a language of reverence has proved to be quite divisive. According to Bumbaugh, some Unitarian Universalists saw the call for a language of reverence as "a profound threat," a part of a "neo-conservative thrust within our movement." The debate has degenerated into "a struggle over who will predominate within the movement," he said, "who will win and who will lose [but] when we allow ourselves to engage in that kind of struggle, all of us will lose."

Bumbaugh does not want to return to traditional language to create a language of reverence. Nor does he feel that such traditional language will help us make a difference in the world. "I do not believe that sprinkling 'God-talk' in our sermons" will be help Unitarian Universalists to be more relevant. Instead, such a return to traditional language "will make us opportunists."

Saying that the dictionary was perhaps the last book that all UUs could refer to as an authority without argument, Bumbaugh pointed out that his dictionary defined "reverence" as "a profound feeling of respect mixed with wonder, fear, and luck." This means that reverence is not something that comforts us, nor is it a tool to further personal or institutional agendas. "It is not a means to an end, it is an end itself, an unbidden reaction, in response to our place in the universe."

"This is at least what I had in mind when I challenged humanists all those months ago to return to a language of reverence," said Bumbaugh. According to him, we need to express our own feelings of the world into which we have been cast using "a language which affirms our inescapable limits... [without giving] up our inescapable responsibility." He seems to be affirming a basically existentialist theology of persons cast into a world that they do not control.

"We used to think we lived in an increasingly secular world," he said, "but if we look carefully around we might discover we are living in a post-secular world." Religion has become a dominant theme in popular culture and in politics. This shift from a secular world to a post-secular world has resulted in "a steady trivialization of traditional religious language." Bumbaugh asserted that as a result "faith is subtly 'commodified.'"

"In fact, religion is [now] a part of the entertainment industry," he said. "In the process, it has been stripped of its power to stand in opposition" to a world that is filled with injustice. Instead of religious communities standing in judgment on secular political power, religion has become a tool of political power. In Bumbaugh's opinion, using traditional religious language "is to ask us to employ a tongue so corrupted and exploited" that it is no longer useful.

"Do we new language of reverence? Yes," he said. "The old language has been captured and enslaved."

In searching for a direction for a possible new language of reverence, Bumbaugh said he finds this in an encounter with the natural world. He mentioned the flocks of green monk parakeets flying over Chicago in the neighborhood of Meadville/Lombard, descendants of escaped pets, "who are thriving in their new and improbable environment." A new language of reverence, true to our times and rooted in our own experience, "reminds us that we are a vulnerable and precious part of a vulnerable and precious world.... An invitation to reverence is all around us."

The Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, Minnesota, responded to Bumbaugh's talk. Gibbons is another well-known humanist within the denomination. She said, "The struggle for a language of reverence is one that has captured me since I engaged in conscious thought." A born UU and the child of humanist parents, she has been a humanist all her life.

Like Bumbaugh, Gibbons wants to have language with which to articulate reverence, while she acknowledges "the exclusively human quality of that response." However, she took issue with him in one important respect. She is willing to use the older languages of reverence from the great religions of the world, while not necessarily taking those older languages literally. She does not believe we can invent such a language out of whole cloth, but said she prefers using the accumulated wisdom of our forebears. Indeed, she feels that using accumulated human wisdom is a central part of the humanist stance.

Gibbons also called for an acute awareness of our historical context. "To think that we must dispense with all traditional language and symbols," she said, "is to assume that no human beings were ever before so clever or so profound, or so committed, as we are." She said she wants to allow herself to draw from earlier wisdom. According to Gibbons, getting rid of all traditional religious language could amount to an act of "adolescent hubris."

"Our wonder is not our own, but echoes down the history of the whole human race," Gibbons concluded. "Genuine human language is a collective human enterprise."

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Joyce Holmen.

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Last updated on Thursday, November 1, 2012.

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