Monday, 19 July 2010

Part Four - The Themes in the Symposium

href="file:///C:%5CUsers%5CBrian%5CAppData%5CLocal%5CTemp%5Cmsohtmlclip1%5C01%5Cclip_themedata.thmx">Belonging: Our Unitarian Identities and the Nature of our Relations” was the formal theme of the Symposium and the eight formal presenters took a serious look at aspects of that theme.

I noted that the collected papers from the event will be made available online from as soon as we can manage it, so I won’t summarize each one, but here are a few of the ideas.

A few months ago I hypothesized in a paper given at British General Assembly that we are not a global faith, but rather a collection of indigenous expressions of liberal religion. Apparently that simple proposition stirred some thinking. I was embarrassed at how many of the papers quoted those lines, but for several presenters it became a departure point for their own musing on the idea of belonging.

Paul Rasor (pictured below) disagreed with the hypotheses and argued that a common covenant was available to us. He took and interesting and useful first try at describing what such a covenant might look like.
The notion of ‘covenant’ with its historic and Biblical overtones (so ably and completely described by Claudia Ramisch) appealed in general to North Americans and Transylvanians, but much less so to others including the British and other liberal Europeans. By week’s end Paul stated that he gathered enough responses to make him want to rethink at least the use of that word, if not the idea that we can describe some common ties. Paul Ruston of the UK, was particularly clear and eloquent in his challenging of the term’s usage, although by the end of his formal response, Paul suggested they weren’t really in disagreement about the deeper theological points.

But a good debate was begun that was still a main topic of discussion at the symposium’s dinner tables two days later.

Belonging itself became almost a separate major theme as we moved into the second day. Maria Pap of Transylvania provided a bridge between the themes as she discussed ten years of Partner Church experiences in Transylvania. It is a history of responsibilities met and not met by partners on both sides of the story as the communities struggled to get to know each other and develop the tools of mutual accountability.

Fulgence Ndagijimana of Burundi followed with a discussion of the idea of belonging in Africa. He suggested that it looks quite complex, but that it is really quite simple. Africans draw their identity from groups: family, tribe, nation, community, gender and religion. Unlike the developed world, the self is defined and discovered in these relationships. Radical, isolated individuality is unknown. “If you want to make change in Africa, you will have to change the structures of belonging.”

Nihal Attanayake of the Philippines looked at belonging from a different point of view as he analyzed world religious tradition regarding our relation to nature. “I am one with Creation, and through Creation I know God.” The idea of this holisitic unity was exciting for some, but troubling for others who believe in a God separate from creation. We have some diverse theologies under our U and UU tent, and the friendly disagreements amongst them are always educational.

Gordon Oliver of South Africa echoed Nihal’s core ideas and challenged us to develop a new spirit of ecology as well as an active, living theology that calls us to live in right relation with the earth and not as masters of it.

On the final day, Eric Hausman, an American trained minister now living in Germany and working with Deutsche Unitaria, gave us a tour of German liberal religious experience and a sense of the historical theological debates. Not surprisingly, the shadow of National Socialism touches liberal religious history, leaving it far from simple and linear.

The final paper was offered by Hans le Grand (below left with Logan Deimler), a Dutch NPB minister who did part of his training at Starr King school in the USA. Hans used the tools of systematic theology to describe our faith. His model fit the North American religious experience particularly well leaving us with the delightful prospect of having a Dutch minister – not technically a Unitarian – explaining the Canadian and American experience of our faith to the rest of the world. Can you get any more international than that?

A Final Word
On behalf of everyone at the two conferences I wish to extend a big thank you to ICUU Staffers Jill McAllister and Steve Dick. In her programming role, Jill led the planning team that developed the theme and assembled some tremendous leaders, worship leaders and thinkers to guide our deliberations. Her efforts, supported by the team, gave both events a satisfying coherence. For his part Steve handled the considerable logistical load with grace and apparent ease. Whether it was the always complex topic of arranging visas, or coordinating local transportation (with a great deal of help from our new Dutch friends) to videoing our main sessions for future reference on our website, Steve made the life of participants easy. Well done!

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