Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (or in this case UU History)?

I happened to hear an interview with Kirk Cameron yesterday after he gave a speech to CPAC. One of the questions he was asked was if his theological impulses were present in his new film. And he responded that yes it was but what he found really important was the faith that brought the pilgrims to these shores and how that shaped the founding of the nation. I wish the interviewer had asked Kirk if he included that those same people killed Quakers and banished everybody else. But the conversation got me to thinking.   

Every time I’ve written something about thinking that UUs ought to know something about UU history a couple of things happen. One, I get called an elitist. Two, I get told that the reason I know whatever bit of history I’m talking about is because I went to seminary and not everybody goes to seminary. On the first, I’m not really worried…if someone thinks I’ll an elitist, so be it. But the second I think is more ruinous. Let me explain why I think this is so.

I’ll start with the obvious. Yes, I went to seminary. Yet I think it should be pointed out again that I didn’t go to either Starr King or Meadville. (and neither school has a professor of history full-time on staff)  I went to Earlham–a Quaker seminary–so UU history is not going to be high on their list of priorities. I did my UU History course as an independent study, and while I was able to learn things I didn’t previously know (mostly about our religious cousins in Central and Eastern Europe) I did know some things before I started.

What I don’t like is the assumption that the only reason that one would want to know UU history is because one is going to become a minister; and on the other hand that UU history is only important to those who are studying for the ministry. I think this attitude puts us in a position of re-inventing the wheel and going nowhere.

For example, let’s look at the conversation around “Congregations and Beyond.” How many people are looking to times in our history where we have confronted a similar situation to see what they did? (I’m thinking about John Haynes Holmes in the early 20th century, but I’m sure a case could be made for other periods in our history.) Why do we have to act as if there is nothing in our past that we could learn from and move forward with? What is it with our “terminal uniqueness” (to borrow the phrase from Rev. Victoria Weinstein)? Do we really think we are the only (or the first) ones to confront changes in the religious landscape? Or do we think that we are so much smarter than they were that there is nothing we can (or need) learn?

Or is the real issue that we’re afraid of what we’ll learn once we do look back?

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf–UU history in this case? I fear that far too many UUs are.

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