Friday, January 12, 2007

Naming Our Spiritual Ancestors

Years ago in seminary, I took a fascinating course entitled "Religions of the Afro-Atlantic Diaspora" and, using what I learned about myself and my own assumptions, I am going to preach on that topic this Sunday in "Honoring Our Spiritual Ancestors". I will refer not only to the great creativity and faithfulness of the African slaves who melded their own indigenous traditions with the enforced Christianity of slaveholders, but also to the ways in which we humans embody the ideals and character of our own spiritual ancestors.

In Voudou, Santeria, and Candomble, the Ancestors are invoked, embodied, and honored in rites of passionate trance and speech. Over the centuries, as human beings migrated here and there, those rites emerged in some of the traditions of the church, both African American and white: call and response preaching, the "amen corner", the impassioned singing of spiritual and gospel songs. It is critical to remember that much religious expression is a direct result of oppression's cruelty and to sing or pray or speak with another's voice without honoring that voice is to lack respect for the voice.

Unitarian Universalism honors many voices and our heroes of faith are often unsung---parents, mentors, teachers, friends---as well as famous men and women such as Jefferson, Barton, Alcott, Channing. During the sermon, I will offer an opportunity for the congregation to name the names of those women and men who are their own spiritual ancestors. For me, those ancestors are, among others, my mother and father, Mona and Merritt Ketcham, and the ideals they lived were those of faithfulness, trust in God, and service to others.

If you were to name your own spiritual ancestors, who would they be and what ideals did you learn from them?


LinguistFriend said...

One has many spiritual ancestors, of course, and not all can be named. For me it is easiest to think of those who influenced me from childhood through college.
One should perhaps not begin with the paternal grandmother who insisted that all her grandchildren should be baptized
as Episcopalians, since her version of religion was that she hated everyone equally, who was not white, of long American settlement, and Protestant. A children's Bible gave me enough orientation that in elementary school I learned the Bible stories as legends on a par with the Greek, Roman, and Germanic ones. I can think of the monks of Glastonbury and Alcuin of York, of whom I first read when I was 8-9 years old. From them I learned of the importance of preserving a tradition of learning. About a year later, at about 10, I read Evelyn Underhill's "Mysticism", which introduced me to a much broader idea of religious experience. During the same period I became acquainted with a breadth of classical music related to religion, although usually quite disconnected from any religious service, since my parents never took us to church in early life.
The music mainly led to meditative listening, but also to some appreciation of religious ceremony. Nevertheless, my father worked constantly to educate himself more broadly after a scientific and technical education at MIT and Harvard, and shared his thinking and books, which was a profound education. Tea and persiflage were the closest to a religious rite in our family. When my father founded a local Unitarian group in my home town in Virginia, in my early teen-age years, that was a bewildering experience, since I could not understand what the Unitarians believed. But my mother had a childhood in which she alternated weeks at a Catholic church (her mother's), and a Baptist church (her father's) and came away from the experience hating all religion. I have written about the Unitarian church of that time at CC's blog ("In my father's synagogue").
The Koran I read in the summer of my 14th year, which gave some useful preparation for meeting Rev. Mounir Sa'adah (born in Damascus, raised Catholic) at the Vermont high school to which I moved in my sophomore year. Mounir was a Universalist minister and history teacher who gave me a broad idea of philosophy and European history in high school but also connected it to the Middle East (and later married me and the wife whom I met in this period). Peggy Bailey, the headmaster's wife and senior English teacher, gave us the gift of extensive reading in the KJV with as much historical background as we could absorb. I had learned enough from my father about Unitarianism that when from time to time I visited the Dartmouth library (about 25 miles from my high school) I would sneak time with the five-volume collected works of Channing, apart from whatever historical project had sent me to Hanover. In the same period, I became acquainted with the work of Bertrand Russell, mainly through his history of philosophy. Only in college did I read his philosophical works such as "Human Knowledge" etc. in which he developed epistemology which extended towards a wide world view. I have written at CC's blog about Richard von Mises's overview from epistemology to such things as poetry, religion, and justice, to which I was introduced by Joshua Whatmough, my first teacher in linguistics. My college roommate Bill Parker not only made me learn to reason better, but challenged my then rather negative views of traditional Christianity, of which he had broad views.
I am now appalled that I always turnd down his urgings to go hear Paul Tillich with him at the university chapel.
My acquaintance with the philosopher and physicist Philipp Frank in the second half of college challenged me; he would tell one when one was wrong, and had a right to a view about how the world worked, like his friend von Mises. Willard Quine's logic course in my first year of graduate school gave my first understanding of how such things as math, linguistic structure, and logic are interconnected to philosophy, to electrical circuits, and thinking. From him I drew an impulse to see the underlying logical structures in religion and philosophy, which make integrative thinking possible. I will close with a mention of my grandfather in law, Merle Dow Thompson ("Bomps"), a sharp Princetonian who had parlayed mathematical studies and skills into business success, but also was broadly learned in literature, history, and philosophy. When I inherited his 12-volume edition of Emerson, I gained a constant reminder of Bomps's sharp mind as well as the Unitarian works of Emerson.

ms. kitty said...

LF, I so appreciate what you have told us about your spiritual ancestors. What a richness of thought and ideas have been offered you! No wonder you have so much to offer others.

Thank you for your thoughts.