What a Puritan can teach

I’m watching the PBS “reality show” Colonial House with deep interest as its 1628 reproduction setting has something to say about social footing of American Protestantism, including Universalism, but particularly Unitarianism.

The producers tried to create a generic English settlement – neither Anglican nor Puritan – and so its religion consultant, Charles Hambrick-Stowe, produced a resource that tried to program “Sabbath meetings” (worship) as broadly as possible.

His task was daunting.

Some [colonists] might be extremely zealous about their faith; some might be just nominal members of a church. Of course, it also seemed likely that some of the colonists would not be religious at all in their real lives. Of these, some might be secular people entirely nave — clueless — about religion. They might be apathetic about spiritual matters or they might be curious and willing to give it a try — in the same way that the participants would be giving everything else in the 17th century a try. In addition to such individuals, COLONIAL HOUSE could also include some inhabitants with negative real-life religious baggage, perhaps outright antagonism toward spiritual things or anything smacking of “church.” How to create a religious structure that would be not only a realistic historical exercise for all these colonists but also meaningful to them personally? How to imagine a religious environment with both kinds of integrity — historical and personal?

Of course, in a way, that’s the curriculum of any today religious group that inherits any traditions, but perhaps ours most of all. Its easy for me to imagine the worship services in the Governor’s house developing into the First Parish, and thenceforth, to the funny Unitarian church on the green.

Back to the show: in short order, some members of the colony were unwilling to “pretend” to have anything like a Puritan faith, and weren’t going to be subject to the reconstructed mores of the colony. (It makes me wonder why they bothered to participate. Was it just a game? A Romantic dream?) In response, the mores fell apart and so you get is a notion of the twenty-first century is really about, more than what the seventeenth was. The more I watched, the more I could see how New England liberalism, whatever its theological and philosophical foundations, was driven by those who wanted to choose “none of the above.” (For what its worth, I wouldn’t want to live in neolithic Wales, on the Montana frontier, in an Edwardian manor house, or in war-bombed London, either.)

The difference is one of choice (something real colonists wouldn’t have had) and in the end twenty-first century notions of religious choice won out. But today, we treat confuse the Governor’s coersive state-power with the choices we make, for our benefit, that nevertheless limit our options. We give up the option of some possible freedoms to enjoy real freedoms. Take marriage, for instance. I vowed to give up the option of the “freedom” of sexual promiscuity to establish the mutual and faithful relationship.

The matter that really bites me today is that some people enter congregational life and think that, once they enter, they have the same full set of choices they had in secular life. That’s one of the places I think that an emphasis on “freedom” in Unitarian Universalist congregation betrays our Puritan roots: we’re always like the adolescent trying to get away with as little religion as possible, and seeing any enrichment as a burden, and a socially-pressured burden at that. This “escape from limitations” plan won’t work in a society that cares little for religious obligations, and is undergoing a rapid transformation towards personal atomization. In a word, the classic liberalism-from-Puritanism isn’t speaking about the trajectory our culture is going, and trying to form institutions to support it, begs common sense.

Perhaps these ideas are why we study and relive history?

From the show’s site: Religion in the Colony

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