Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Combating Cross Cringe

Yesterday I attended a Marriage Equality colloquy across the water, at Temple Beth Or in Everett, and was energized and enivened by the speakers, Dr Lisa Davison of Lexington Theological Seminary, and two same-sex couples who told their stories of coming out, meeting the one they love, creating a family, and the subsequent difficulties that they face because they are unable to be legally married.

I've heard the stories before. I've heard Lisa speak at last year's colloquys. I'm familiar with all the arguments and have made up my mind as a Marriage Equality supporter. So why do I still attend these things? Don't I already know what I think?

Of course I know. But what I find compelling about these events is the opportunity to meet and get to know clergy and laity from other faith traditions, both Christian and Jewish. And it's disappointing to me that most UU laypersons and clergy are uninterested in this opportunity.

Yesterday only one other Unitarian Universalist attended. Though I invited all my colleagues to attend one of the six events around the state, very few have taken me up on it. And the reason given is that they have already made up their minds; they know how they feel, so why should they attend?

I understand that sense of "been there, done that". For me Marriage Equality is a no-brainer and my faith tradition is fully supportive. I've led three congregations through the Welcoming Congregation process and know how valuable that effort can be for a church.

But people in other denominations are struggling and they need us as allies, to help them find ways to deal with the political morass that the Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and others are fighting as they seek to overturn church law that is oppressive and demeaning.

I am uncomfortable with the reluctance of many UUs to engage with clergy and laity of other faiths. It's almost as if they are afraid of being contaminated by Christianity, a fear I find hard to tolerate. It's almost as if they are saying to themselves, "I already know all this stuff, why should I go and hang around and be bored because my knowledge is more advanced and superior". It's almost as if they want to maintain their specialness as the most radical of the Radical Reformers and fear that specialness will be eroded if they rub elbows with the less radical.

I've said it before and I say it again, interfaith work is the antidote to cross cringe in our congregations. When laity work on justice issues with others of differing faiths, particularly Christian, they learn that Christians are concerned about many of the same justice issues as UUs, that liberal Christians are not so different from us, that the cross means something different than they might expect. And when clergy engage with other clergy of differing faiths, particularly Christian, they model for their congregants an openness and understanding that will go a long way toward eradicating cross cringe and contempt for Christian theology.

Having been raised in a Christian home where the cross meant unconditional love, I am fortunate and I understand that others have not had that advantage. But in human life, when we discover something in life that makes us uncomfortable and upset, it behooves us to investigate that unease, to seek its roots, and to deal with it. I have people in one congregation who refuse to go to church because there is a cross visible in the rented sanctuary. Why would someone cut him/herself off from the community over this symbol? There's something dysfunctional about that response.

I often think of myself as a bridge between the UU faith community I love and serve and the Christian faith community which I grew up in. If only we could see ourselves as allies, not as combatants! Perhaps that day will come, as I noticed yesterday that the Disciples and Methodists and Mennonites and UCCs I met are edging ever closer to UUism in their outreach efforts. We are not so special after all!


Joel said...

I can't speak for the other groups, but if you're waiting for the Catholics to change their stance, you're in for a disappointment. It's not just a matter of Church law with us; it's a much more core thing. The Church could no more institute homosexual marriage than she could repudiate the Trinity. It's not intolerance or intentional inequity; it's simply something that can't be changed.

ms. kitty said...

Can you say more about that, Joel? I am interested in the "more core thing".

Joel said...

Well, Christina could expand on it a lot better than I can, but at the heart of the Church are the sacraments, of which marriage is one. I assume you're pretty well versed theoretically in sacramental theology, so I'm stating the obvious here, but a sacrament is a contact both physical and spiritual between God and Man. The Eucharist is the most obvious example, in which the miracle of transubstantiation occurs at the Mass. It's not symbolic or pretend; we believe it's a literal act of God. The traditional understanding of the Eucharist goes back to the ancient Church, and it's nature isn't optional. The Church couldn't suddenly declare, for instance, that Zwingli was right and there is no transubstantiation. To do so would be tantamount to changing God's mind for Him. The Church can decide under what curcumstances it will confer a sacrament, but not the nature of the sacrament itself.

In the case of baptism, ordination and marriage, the sacrament actually produces a change in the nature of the recipient. For instance, when ordination is conferred, the man is changed inwardly from a layman to a priest, and can't be changed back. (Including a laicized priest; his authorization to function as a priest can be revoked, but he's still a priest until he dies.) Marriage is kind of unique in that sense, as it's conferred on two peoplle smultaneously, but the set-in-stone nature of the sacrament remains. It's not just license to have sex; it's a melding of two complementary parts into a single unit. It's also tied up with the will to multiply and to establish a family unit. The nature of the sacrament is heterosexual and monogamous, just as the nature of the Eucharist is edible (rather than, say, inhaled or injected).

Church law is disciplinary, meaning it's subject to change. That's why, for instance, we don't have to abstain from meat on Fridays anymore except during Lent. That was a matter of canon law, which was changed in 1983. Doctrines and dogmas are not canon law; they are infallibly ruled on by the Church and you either accept them or you're not a member in good standing. (As I like to say, I can disagree with the Church all I want, but it just means I'm wrong.)

The nature of a sacrament is doctrinal, which means it's not up to the individual whether to believe or not. All the polite dissent and "working for change from within" in the world isn't going to change the Church's stance on them. That's what's sad about these groups that are performing female ordinations against the Church's will. They're not forcing the Church's hand; they're merely excommunicating themselves. And it's the same with same-sex marriage. It's nothing personal; it's not a lack of compassion. With all the compassion in the world, the Church can't marry two men or two women. The nature of the sacrament makes it impossible. If it's done to two members of the same sex, it's merely a ritual, not a sacramental marriage.

You said "say more," and my keyboard ranneth over. Sorry for the longwindedness. :)

ms. kitty said...

Joel, thanks. I had an inkling of this and should have remembered it myself, but I appreciate your taking the time to spell it out for me. Of course it's a logical position for Catholicism.

Bill Baar said...

For me Marriage Equality is a no-brainer and my faith tradition is fully supportive.

I agree with the conservative arguments for same-sex marriage. I regret for many on the left marriage is a bit of a no brainer. It's gone from a symbol of bondage and oppression of women in the 60s to a right for gays today.

We ought to be putting some thought into sexual ethics and marriage because they are fundamental institutions.

We can't talk marriage equality as a code word for same sex marriage and then say: we have no position yet, on polygamy as out-of-scope.

We should just drop the marriage equality frame and just say we'll marry same sex partners, and the rest of today's culture we have no opinion on.\

It won't work for a Catholic Church that deals throughout the world in many cultures, but we can get away without taking a stand.

LinguistFriend said...

I have been rather slow to react to this posting on a subject that you have mentioned before. I suspect that the problem is broader than you state. Many UUs
have defined their religious selves negatively when moving away from their previous affiliation, often with great pain. They often have not yet managed to establish a positive identity for themselves, in the hackneyed but accurate notion of building their own theology. I suspect that the
degree of willingness to engage in interfaith dialogue is directly proportional to the level of comfort with one's own religious identity, so that is where the effort needs to go first.
On the other hand, the degree of willingness to engage in interaction even with other UU congregations varies greatly. I saw it well developed for the first time when I lived in Southern California, where there were a number of congregations within easy driving distance of one another. In South Carolina, on the other hand, there something of a fortress mentality, partly because the UU congregation was almost the only place that many members could be themselves, because of the stifling Christian religiosity of the area. A physician told me that if it became known that he was a member of a UU church, he would lose his medical practice. When I became active in one interfaith group aiming to head off possible violence and reactions against Muslims after 9/11, it was a memorable experience.
Where I live in Ohio, I am in a congregation which is about 70% ex-Catholic, and anti-Christian sentiments are sometimes expressed by children in RE, to the pain of children whose parents have managed to sustain some positive relation to Christianity although they choose to attend a nominally humanist congregation.
The children in RE and their teacher have appreciated my
willingness to talk about Judaism and Christianity in terms of friendly interest and without bias, basically on the level of history and literature.
But this congregation is doubly negatively defined. It broke off from and has little interaction with a middle-sized congregation in the local large city, in which the (former Methodist) minister maintains a strong sentiment of the historical provenance of UUism and its relation to other faiths, and at least at the level of organizational leadership does engage in interfaith activity. The reactive character of the religious stance of many people in my congregation who fear a hierocracy threatens an ongoing effort on the part of the some members of the congregation to build towards hiring a minister. An experienced, recently retired, very capable minister has undertaken to model on a part-time basis what the presence of a minister can contribute to the congregation, but the long-term outcome is rather unpredictable. In the meantime, I do pop off to the city every now and then when our minister is absent, for a complementary situation.

ms. kitty said...

What a great post, LF. I'm on Vashon this weekend and can't do more than acknowledge it, since I have to get dressed for church in a few mnutes. But I am interested in what you have to say.