THE HOLY – Rev. Robert Latham, TRUU Minister —
In western cultures the meaning of the word holy roots backward to the twelve hundreds AD. It traffics on the English word whole. Its two most likely meanings are:
- That which must be preserved intact.
- That which must not be transgressed or violated.
Synonyms are: sacred, hallowed, venerable, supreme, consecrated, blessed, sanctified.
Humans in the west have used this term to designate those aspects of belief and living which they feel are supreme or deserving of our highest devotion. These designations are viewed as so important to meaning and relationships as to warrant a commitment of non-violation. Thus, they become holy. Most every religion considers its beliefs holy and normally confers holiness upon its ultimate value (God, Allah, etc). Most humans consider something in their living inviolable, if nothing but them selves. And we compete about the holy and go to war over its assumed violations.
What this usage means is that we humans choose to declare what is holy or unholy in our living. It is a personal and community choice. There is nothing in creation that is inherently holy or unholy. As a meaning maker, every human has a right to make their own declarations.
The usage of the term holy, then, is to designate those aspects of human relating that are supreme in our investments of valuation and nobility. The normal focus of this designating is people, objects, concepts and space.
Liberals, in their rejection of traditional forms of western religion, are prone to fall into the oxymoronic trap of denying the existence of the holy while expressing attitudes that declare their personal view as inviolable. One symptom of this trap is “throwing the baby out with the dirty bath water.” Rejected beliefs are lumped together with the traditional religious language that carries these beliefs. An example is the word holy. There are serious penalties to be paid for this confusion of language and the meaning given to language. One is to be divested of the power of language. With this divestiture is lost the ability to dialogue with the culture in which one lives. An equally debilitating penalty is to become the captive of what one has rejected by giving up control of definitions. Social impotence is usually the result of these two penalties.
Holy or Not?
Are our liberal values inviolable? If so, then holy is an apt designation. Our community worship service on Sunday mornings is a celebration of these values. Is this experience, then, as holy as the values that are being commemorated? How should we behave in the presence of what we consider holy?
Our social mission as a religious institution is to provide our culture with life meaning and direction. It is to transform this culture into a carrier of our liberal values. Therefore, is this mission holy? And if it is holy how should we respond to the privilege of support and attendance? Is it holy, too?
If nothing is holy then nothing is worthy of being viewed as supreme or inviolable. If that is the case then there is no reason to gather on Sundays except to fulfill the shallow need to rub shoulders with other liberals. If human transformation toward the realization of our most noble possibilities is holy it is because we declare it to be so.
It is the endowment of something as holy which demands our allegiance and resources. If the public worship that declares our values and our message of social transformation is not holy then we have secularized our reason for being and reduced our level of motivational appeal to the ordinary.
When guests enter an experience they sense its nature. They will know the degree to which a worship experience is taken seriously by the congregation. And their desire to return will be directly related to what they sense. Why waste one’s time with an experience that does not proclaim itself as profound and behave accordingly? The ordinary can be experienced anywhere.
A congregation’s social reputation is build around its public worship. The values it believes inviolable are proclaimed during this event. Thus, its power to exert influence in the larger community stems from this witness. And, as a rule, the congregation’s first shot at imaging itself to a guest is it’s only shot if that person is not grabbed by the experience.
A congregation’s witness is easily dismissed by individuals who attend once without being impressed. Such experiences are cumulative in power because they are shared with others. Therefore, every single service is vital to the congregation’s social witness whether that service is led by a lay person or a professional minister. If you knew nothing about Unitarian Universalism and walked into one of our services, what would be your impressions? The laity must demand of themselves the same that they demand of a professional minister: nothing less than a holy experience that offers personal and social transformation.
Robert T. Latham