Don’t hit the books! They’re the good guys! Or: Some thoughts on diversity in books and in sermons

Well, it’s been awhile, eh? UU churches are known to estivate, and your Borrower Bee has been estivating to beat the band. She’s been dropping by the library occasionally, putting up a few signs, sorting donations, and being glad to spend time in our nice, cool basement, with the books. In these troubling times, books set a good example. They come in all sizes, all ages, and every color of the rainbow, and they espouse different points of view; yet they sit together on the shelf, rubbing shoulders amicably enough, and thereby make up our library, a modest but useful contribution that none of them could make alone.

If only people could negotiate differences so easily! Our library, in fact, attests to how many different and often incompatible viewpoints have at one time or another concerned people in our congregation. Evident in a number of ways, diversity is especially noticeable in our collections that document some of the great spiritual paths that humanity has embarked on: early Christian thought (and a few shelves on the other Abrahamic religions), the history of the Amish, Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan), Taoism, Native American, atheism, humanism … As in every congregation, some parts of our UU background are widely represented in the congregation, others less so.

Of course we have a good selection of works by and about UU ministers and other distinguished leaders in our own tradition. It is especially rewarding, though, when we have a chance to encounter viewpoints we usually hear less about. Your Bee has no idea how we came to invite the guest who preached yesterday’s sermon, but she appreciated the opportunity to learn something about Islam from Dr Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and scholar of Islam, the religion he practices. Among other heartening aspects of his sermon, Dr Khan spoke of the connection between the words for “worship” and “service” in Arabic, a connection we also have in our English-language notion of a “worship service”. Dr Khan’s focus on serving humanity as a way of serving God, and his attention to the language of his texts, reminded me of a Biblical passage that we in our congregation may be more familiar with: Abraham’s response to three angels that he sees but doesn’t recognize as angels, right outside his tent (Genesis 18). We all remember that Abraham offers them hospitality. Less well remembered is something else. Before he sees the three newcomers, Abraham has already noticed that he is being visited by God himself — and with God right there, he hurries from his tent to take care of his other visitors. The Christian Bible at this point has Abraham now address the “gentlemen” (adonai), inviting them to stop for refreshment. In contrast, the Jewish tradition reads the text as Abraham’s turning to the Lord God (Adonai) to ask him to wait while he attends to the visitors’ needs. Both meanings are contained in the Hebrew text, but the English language insists that we take one way out or the other. For whatever reason, Jewish tradition favors asking God to wait. The Christian translation tradition seems more neutral, making God a kind of witness or divine authority whose presence sanctions the angelic mission. The Christian version of Abraham in no way asserts himself in relation to God, nor, in the Christian tradition, would he be expected to: for Christians of course God is specifically “the Father”. Perhaps the rich pictorial tradition of Christianity contributes to the substantiality of the connection between God and family hierarchy, while Judaism, like Islam, is more tentative about religious images. Our description of the Six Sources of our faith lists “Jewish and Christian teachings” as one source, a vestigial elision of two different religions into a single “Judeo-Christian tradition”.  Hearing a thoughtful sermon by a Muslim faith leader reminds us of the diversity of our heritage, and both smooths and broadens the path we choose to walk together, and the paths on which we can hope to meet our neighbors. It can also remind us that when we remember our stories, it’s a good idea to read the texts – and we have quite a few of them (notes your librarian) in our Behrens Library.

… and their use in our church life

Besides the slim volume on the Fellowship Movement, also of note among our new books is the current edition of a well-known book by John A. Buehrens, Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History.

Behrens Library also has several copies of slightly earlier editions, and the book is highly recommended reading for the course on UU History and Heritage currently underway at UUCL. The course is taught by our developmental minister, Rev. Barbara Coeyman, with course meetings on Tuesday nights, from 7 to 9, at UUCL. The course is free but registration is required.

Among our newer acquisitions …

We don’t spend all our time shuffling old books around. Sometimes we add new ones! We have a surprising range of topics, but today I’d like to point out a couple of newish goodies that fit neatly into our core UU mission. They’re mostly, in fact, from either Skinner or Beacon, the UU publishing lines. Among the books that appear in the blog picture, one book  is in an area that isn’t directly connected to our own congregational history but highlights an interesting aspect of the history of UU-ism, namely the Fellowship movement. Fellowships have sometimes been formed by liberal religious groups too small or too isolated to become fully-fledged church congregations, and there was a moment in our history when forming fellowships was a very active way of supporting liberal religion. Even now many UU congregations are small and always have been, and some small congregations have no interest in getting bigger, even if it is hard to keep them going, or, in some cases, even if anyone who wants to locate them needs a really, really good map. The book we have just acquired on The Fellowship Movement discusses the movement in full and serious historical context, but my favorite bits are the stories about, literally, wandering country roads with a torch trying to find some of our more elusive co-religionists. There is also some pretty wry commentary on UU congregations too small to support a minister, and on the fact that some of them think they would rather not have a minister, thank you very much, as well as colorful  descriptions of why some ministers probably wouldn’t want them either.  And this, of course, is just the American story. One of my favorite readings in the sober British Unitarian press of the early 20th century discusses the Unitarian Religious Revival. The point of the article seems to have been to raise the question of whether there was one and whether one was wanted. The answer seems to have been ‘no’, on both counts. But being British, of course, the discussion was very polite and one was so glad the question had been raised. The issues of congregational size and the formation of new congregations continue to be important, of course, and they have direct connection to current questions of the covenantal relationships that exist among congregations and congregational polity. For the history of those issues in American UU-ism, you can check out the Minns lectures by Alice Blair Wesley.