Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Amazing Grace: A Unitarian Perspective

A theological choice

You may have heard the joke that Unitarians are poor singers because they are always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next line.  A friend sent me a link from the Unitarian publication UU World that talks about one particular hymn that actually gives singers a couple of options. It’s the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It seems that rather than forcing worshippers to sing about amazing grace “that saved a wretch like me,” there is an asterisk to indicate that one may sing, “that saved a soul like me.” The article asks the question, do you feel wretched or soulful today? Is your theology one of confessing “your own wretchedness and even our common condition as a fallen, faulty species,” or do you affirm that you are “a nice, well-rounded, fully individuated, sin-free, guilt-free humanist soul?”

The author of the brief article, Virginia Stafford, makes this point about Unitarians: “We sing our song in different keys and cadences. We are on our own to make a faith out of nothing, which is to say, out of everything we have. That is daunting, lonely work, demanding and relentless work, the work of a lifetime, and I suspect it is the very scope of it that keeps our tiny movement small. Not everyone wants to stop singing in the middle of the song and consider once again and all alone the nature of the human soul and God, infinity within and infinity without.”

Are you a wretch or a soul?

There were a few comments to the online article. I had to add my perspective that we sit in our niceties of society and discuss the polarities or "wretch" or "soul." We should not lose sight of the fact that this beloved hymn was written by English evangelical John Newton, who had once been a slave trader. Little wonder that he chose the word "wretch" to describe his former life. If we accept our own humanity, we must accept that we ourselves possess all the potential goodness and evil that exists within the human spectrum.

My friend who shared the article with me later said that he was listening to a recording of the famous African American singer, the late Paul Robeson, singing “Amazing Grace.” He found it interesting to note that Mr. Robeson chose to sing “a soul like me.” Here again, I think I can understand why the singer made that choice. Perhaps both perspectives can be true on any given day. Perhaps both are simultaneously true on any given day. How do you feel today?


1 comment:

  1. I was in the midst of a texting riff with a friend, me in Maine, he at home in the Berkeley Hills or on Kauii after winning a boondoggle prize -- there's about a 95 F temperature difference between us today -- and I mentioned that I'd just finished Jon Meacham's book on Jefferson and what a brilliantly conflicted, sometimes tormented man TJ was. In my effort to be as glib as could be, I was googling for Revolutionary U's and the longer laundry list of all things U and/or UU, like Newton's mid-ocean conversion. I came across this page and wondered if perchance this might be a chapter of sorts of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

    If yes, I'll be relieved, for I've not found my usual UU home this move around. I fooled myself, having found most of my friends in communities of UU's in AZ and MA, of U's in London.


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