Beyond the Flaming Chalice (May, 2006)

Through the alchemy of the three classes I took this semester (Theology, Paganism, and “Built of Living Stones”), I have a pretty clear idea of my immediate research topic: Unitarian Universalist architecture.

The world’s suffering cries out; would that I could just give all I have to “bind up the broken” and “free the captives”; that by my good intention I could end my own complicity in racist institutions and oppressive social structures. So much violence, pain, dire circumstance, and despair claim our attention. What possible theological frame might support us in work that will certainly not be completed in the foreseeable future?

Yesterday I watched a DVD of Michael Dowd preaching “evolutionary Christianity,” in which he points out that the prospect of getting up in the morning to make the world a “little less bad” isn’t very inspiring, and asks what world view would both support social justice and inspire us to hope and effort. His mythology of the “Great Story” of the universe effectively celebrates the wonders of nature and the blessedness of creation. Recently I talked with Lindi Ramsden about the architecture of the church she served in San José, and she mentioned someone she knew who pointed out that nowhere in the Sources and Principles of Unitarian Universalism is “beauty” cited as a value we embrace. “Embodied Wisdom and Beauty” is one of the learning thresholds of SKSM, and I hope this will be considered when the Commission on Appraisal reviews the Sources and Principles. Rebecca Parker spoke winningly last week about the link between social justice and the “lilies of the field” in the Sermon on the Mount.

In the “Built of Living Stones” class we presented our projects last week, and I was struck powerfully by the contrast between the Christian tradition of embodied beauty and that of Unitarian Universalists. Of course it would be no great revelation to observe that there is a long and rich tradition of Christian art and architecture. Somehow, hearing the reports juxtaposed as they were in this class emphasized the relative poverty of Unitarian Universalist art. I could not help feeling a bit bereft, despite the beauty and nobility of the San José church. (I felt better when I recognized that much of the glory in Roman Catholic art is rooted in pagan traditions.)

I think we need to “be intentional” about creating the “cosmic story” for Unitarian Universalism as suggested by McKeeman. While it may contain pollen collected from other traditions, it must be our own, and must account for the practices of the religious communities we hold so dear. We will not need to invent such a story out of nothing, and it won’t be the work of any one person. In fact, I think the cosmic story of our faith already exists for us to discover. I found a piece of it in the design of the First Unitarian Church of San José: the circle. I plan to analyze the architecture of several other Unitarian Universalist buildings theologically, to ascertain what common themes may emerge and to explore the ways in which the buildings may influence or reflect congregational life, including worship. In this way, I hope to illustrate Rebecca’s assertion that Unitarian Universalism does have a theological “house,” even if it thinks it doesn’t.

I’m not certain where this project will lead, but I feel called to work toward consistency between theology and material culture in our movement. I’m especially interested in architecture and music, but also ritual, vestments, and iconography. My experience of congregational dynamics suggests that the character of worship space can subtly shape a community’s patterns of relationship, for good or ill.