Friday, November 5, 2010

Freedom and Meaning

UUsalon's November Big Question asks "What is a Unitarian Universalist?" The subtext is a verbal claim that one can't be a Unitarian Universalist unless one belongs to a UUA member congregation. Is that right?

[Humpty Dumpty said:] 'There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

---- Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll

Living in a country where we put the concept of "free speech" on a pedestal, and think we have quite a bit more of it than we actually have, I claim the freedom to call myself whatever I want. No one would be likely to object strongly if, for instance, I were to call myself an apophatic mystical universalist, although I expect I'd get a lot of reactions that all translated roughly as "what???"

Since I claim the right to call myself by any label I choose, the question becomes why I would want to use one label over any other. Offhand, I can think of several reasons:

  1. I might think that "apophatic mystical universalist" flows off my tongue so lusciously that I just like to hear myself say it.
  2. I might want to show the world that I know some big words to try and impress people.
  3. I might want to associate myself with other apophatic mystical universalists, because they are such wonderful people, however vanishingly small a number they may be.
  4. I might want to try to use the label as a sort of shorthand for a much longer and more complicated explanation of what I "really" am.

My guess is that most people, when using a label for themselves, are subconsciously attempting some combination of 3 and 4. People who call themselves "Catholic" or "Democrat" or "teacher" or "middle-aged" all are both describing some set of characteristics of themselves and claiming association with others using the same label.

The problem comes in when what I mean by a label doesn't match what someone else means by the same label. Take, for example, the name "Christian." My wife, a lovely lady in all particulars, feels that for one to call onesself a Christian, one must accept certain beliefs, largely those expressed within the Nicene creed, and that if you don't believe that stuff, you ought to call yourself something else, because if you don't you're just confusing people who use the "standard" definition. On the other hand, I know a number of fine people who think the Creed is nonsense, but still are perfectly happy labelling themselves as Christian, thus using the term in a completely different way. Who's right? Our culture, as noted, glorifies free speech, but it also glorifies this other little concept called "majority rule." Given relative weight of numbers, if someone hears the term "Christian" without any additional context, they're likely to visualize some set of characteristics relatively close to the mainstream view, whether or not the person who used the term intended that meaning.

Now take "Unitarian Universalist." Clearly any of us can choose to use it as a label, and can mean anything we please by doing so, but what, if anything, are we communicating? It's not clear that there even is a "mainstream" view of its meaning. The Unitarian Universalist Association certainly disavows any theologically grounded use of either unitarian or universalist, but tenaciously and legally defends its ownership of the concatanated phrase. Holders of alternate viewpoints disagree with sufficient vigor to impel them to create alternative organizations like the American Unitarian Conference or the Christian Universalist Association. If you were lucky enough to find a "person on the street" who'd even heard of the UUA, their view might well be something along the lines of "aren't they the athiests?" even though, if I recall correctly, that's not a majority viewpoint even within the UUA. Precisely because of these ambiguities, I generally don't say "I'm a UU," but instead the more tedious but more correct "I belong to a UUA congregation."

Hearking back to our original question, "who's a UU?" our civic traditions answer: anyone who calls themselves one. To the unasked (in this month, anyway) question of "what does that mean?" we can only say: ask a lot of questions and leave your assumptions at the door. If you don't agree, well, there's glory for you.

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