Friday, August 19, 2011

It's No Wonder...

Almost two weeks ago, a blogger going by "Wondertwisted" wrote a blog post titled A 'Dear John' Letter to Unitarian Universalism.  (Her real name appears to be "Cindy" based on the responses to the post, but since I'm a Cindy, that's confusing, so we'll call her "WT.")  In her post, WT outlines the reasons why she's leaving Unitarian Universalism.  The blog post immediately got a lot of my colleagues talking about it, mostly on Facebook as they posted up the piece.  I've been thinking about WT's post since then, and am still not really ready to put out a full response, but here goes for a bit anyway.

I understand what it is my colleagues are saying when they are sympathizing with Wondertwisted.  They see in her post a desire for a deeper spiritual experience in Unitarian Universalism.  It's connected to the "Language of Reverence" discussions that went around a few years ago and the "Whose Are We" discussions the UUMA has started.  The recent UU World piece by David Bumbaugh articulated this neatly, as well. 

I also understand the yearning for a Unitarian Universalism that is more embracing of its Christian past.  I serve a church with a high percentage of UU Christians, and I'm the child of UU Christians, and I think it's very important to create a religious atmosphere in UU churches that is welcoming and embracing of UU Christians.  And I know that there are UU churches where UU Christians have felt the atmosphere to be hostile to their beliefs.  I've heard this from a family member, for one thing.  I've worked hard to discourage this kind of attitude whenever I've seen it.  And I know some see in WT an articulating of how hostile our churches can sometimes be.

I read Wondertwisted a little differently, however.  First of all, I'd like to say that while I want Unitarian Universalism to grow, I don't envision a world wherein everyone becomes Unitarian Universalist.  It's well and good that people are different religions--I like religious diversity in the world.  So I don't mourn that UCC members are members of the UCC and not the UUA.  That's great that the UCC is there and that we have so much in common with them.  And I think UU churches are sometimes a stopping point for religious wanderers on their way to somewhere else.  That's okay with me, too.  Not everybody who walks through our doors is really going to find that Unitarian Universalism is what that person is looking for.  And a lot of what people are looking for and not finding in our church is something a lot more Christian than what we are. 

So there are UU Christians and there are UUs who are not Christian and there are Christians who are not UU.  And it's good that there are all these categories.

I think Wondertwisted may be, as she describes herself, a "Unitarian Christian," but she's not a UU Christian, and it's great that she's figured that out and gone off to somewhere where they are more Christian and maybe less Unitarian, but more what she's looking for.  Let me explain.

It's comes down to this passage:
I was at a UU leadership function. I met a really smart, really energetic and sweet guy. The kind of guy that any church elder or pastor would love to recruit onto the board. He volunteered his path to me: “I’m a Buddhist-Humanist,” he said. Then he took a swig of fair trade coffee while I told every particle of my being that, no, I would NOT roll my eyes.

You can’t be a Buddhist-Humanist. You just can’t.
Here's the thing: Yes, you can.  And that's part of what Unitarian Universalism is about.  She says, "Be a Buddhist or a Humanist and do the work, because I suspect that claiming a hybrid philosophy might have something to do with wanting to be “spiritual” without the messy work of transformation."  But sometimes "doing the work" of theology is in studying and understanding multiple religious traditions and understanding that each of them have to be adapted in some way to fit with one's own spiritual beliefs.  I know there are critics of Building Your Own Theology out there, but I think it had a lot of things right.  In Unitarian Universalism we do pick and choose and create hybrid theologies.  And in many cases this is because we have "done the work" -- a lot more so than your average non-hybrid-believer.  By way of example, a recent Pew study showed that atheists know a lot more about religion than the average believer. 

It's frankly very easy to see how a UU can be a Buddhist-Humanist.  Those two faith traditions have a lot in common.  And neither Buddhism nor Humanism is a dead, unchanging, ungrowing thing.  They both have flexibility in them.  But one who sees the definitions of Humanism or Buddhism as so rigid that one can't find a home in both?  Well, it's not surprising to me to hear that person doesn't feel at home in Unitarian Universalism.

Not everyone is comfortable with ambiguity, with gray areas, with the lack of rigid definitions, of course.  I often say that what makes UU Christians and UU Buddhists and UU Pagans and UU Humanists all UU is that we all believe we don't have all of the answers, and that we can learn from one another.  We believe in the value of coming together in religious diversity and sharing our religious journeys. 

So blessings on your journey, Wondertwisted.  I'm glad you've figured out where your religious home is.  And it's okay that it's not us. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pronoun Usage: Where Grammar and Justice Meet

As many of you may be aware, I have my bachelor's and an M.A. in English literature, and I often teach introduction to composition at the local community college in addition to ministry.  I'm teaching again this fall, and am thinking over my point of view about pronouns, specifically the use of "they" as a singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun.

My previous perspective had been that I was there to teach them to abide by the MLA style, and that the MLA style did not (yet) allow for the singular use of "they."  Therefore, I have been marking this as a pronoun/noun error on papers for years.  As far as I can determine, the MLA, Chicago, and APA style manuals all still recommend "he or she" or "he/she" or making the subject plural.  The Chicago Style Manual states:
A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.
 The Chicago Style Manual recommends all the usual work-arounds: "he or she," plural subjects, imperative mood, rewrite the noun, revise the sentence, etc.  I couldn't find as clear a statement out of the MLA or APA, but my understanding is that they offer the same options.  The textbook I'm using for my class, The Little Seagull Handbook, offers these same work-arounds. 

My job, as I saw it, was to teach them to learn to use the MLA style and their handbook, and so I followed its rules.

However, there is one big problem with the he/she-type work-around: it leaves out people who do not use male or female pronouns to describe themselves.  And in the transgender community, use of alternative pronouns is becoming more common, particularly use of "zhe" or "hir."  Not everyone considers themselves as someone either male or female--we don't all fit neatly into two little boxes.  I could have students list all the pronouns, but as awkward as "he or she" is, certainly something like "he, she, zhe, or hir" would be more awkward. 

There's an interesting story here about how we took a situation that was understood as sexist--the use of "he" to mean people of all genders--and then created a popular usage, "he or she," that was still discriminatory.  And the grammar handbooks are still fighting the first problem and sometimes not even acknowledging the second one.  For example, the Little Seagull Handbook says, "Sexist language is language that stereotypes or ignores women or men... Writers once used he, him, and other pronouns as a default to refer to people whose sex was unknown to them...  Use both masculine and feminine pronouns joined by or."  The Chicago Manual of Style similarly gives this as an option without recognition of the justice problem that it creates in section 5.225--Nine techniques for achieving gender neutrality: "Use he or she (sparingly)."

There's one clear answer to this justice problem, and it's the one they all avoid: "they."  I try to avoid it in formal writing, but I do it in speech all the time.  It's being used commonly in speech, and grammar rules should follow usage, not dictate usage, is one argument.  It's a similar situation, one can argue, to what happened with the word "you."  "You" was originally a plural pronoun, and the singular was "thou."  Now we use a plural pronoun as a singular one with no issue, except for the need to create a new plural such as y'all.  (Heavens, let's hope we don't get a "th'all" emerging!)

We don't really, however, use "they" in a complete singular way.  We switch our sentences mid-stream to plural.  So we don't take the sentence, "A student can use whichever pronoun he or she wants" and replace "he or she" with "they" and say, "A student can use whichever pronoun they wants."  We say, rather, "A student can use whichever pronoun they want."  We change the verb there at the end to reflect the fact that "they" is a plural pronoun.  If I'm allowing for a singular "they" it should be followed by a singular verb, yes?  But that's not what we're doing in speech.  And we're not going to drop "he" or "she" as pronouns anytime soon and just move to totally using they and having plural verbs for singular subjects.  So it's still all mixed up.

I've explained all this to my students, and told them that I want them to learn to use the style recommended and that I think this will change in the next few years and the style manuals will accept "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, but until they do, I want them to be aware of how they're using their pronouns and follow the style manual.

But I'm swayed now by the justice argument.  I was told of a situation in which the University of Michigan, my alma mater, dealt with this in a policy and ended up rewriting the sentences to avoid "he or she" or the singular "they" in order to be both grammatically and politically correct, when the justice advocates and the rhetoricians couldn't agree.  The UU Ministers Association, I learned recently, embraces the singular "they" as a solution. 

I would like to allow my students to use the singular "they," but at the same time I want them to be aware of what they're doing.  I'm thinking of some sort of solution where they indicate their awareness through asterisks or brackets or italics: they, *they*, [they].  That would show they're aware of the singular pronoun, and I would like them to be.  But that's as disruptive to the eye, on an aesthetic level, as people would think something like "z/s/he" would be. 

So what will I do?  I think, in the end, there's only one solution: explain it all, but let the student do whatever they want.  There's still no reason I can't crack down on apostrophes.  Thank goodness, because as fond as I was of pointing out pronoun/noun disagreements, the apostrophes are where my real passion is.