I have long been uneasy with a recent practice among Unitarian Universalists of singing changed words to a particular song in Singing the Living Tradition, the hymnal published by the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Granted, we are always changing words to make them more palatable and therefore singable in our congregations. We free original hymns of their sexism and God-talk, for example, in an effort for our worship to be more inclusive.
The changed lyrics I am thinking of are to the old African American song, “There Is More Love Somewhere.” I have heard it sung by UUs as “There is more love right here.”
And as much explaining as I have done from the pulpit about understanding and respecting the history and context of the song, I field questions from congregation members who protest the song’s words when we sing it as is.
There is much to be troubled by this, and not merely annoyed that, yet again, Unitarian Universalists know better than less enlightened people what they should have been singing.
People who have everything they need don’t understand why they would sing about love and hope and joy being somewhere else.
People privileged enough to not want for many of life’s blessings can be incapable of hearing the yearning of those who go without.
Lament is a misunderstood and unappreciated form of prayer. We can be grateful for what we have, we can ask for what we need, we can admit when we’ve made mistakes. To cry out “Why? How long must I endure this?” does none of these things, yet is as authentic a prayer as any.
Longing for what is not yet, yearning for what is absent ultimately affirms hope. Not optimism, hope. Happiness and love and joy and peace are attainable, even as they are not yet attained.
Expressions of aching desire do not merely allow us to wallow. It is not an admission of defeat. Calling out for what is missing is ultimately an affirmation of resolve and expectation: “I’m going to keep on till I find it.”
“There Is More Love Somewhere” is among that repertoire of African American songs from the time of slavery. Spirituals give voice to the experience of slavery, the African American experience of survival and resilience. These songs give theological voice to those who endured slavery, making meaning and spurring resistance as they are sung. When (in my case) white people ask for word changes in such a song, my alarm bells start ringing.
Are white Unitarian Universalists not capable of identifying with Black experience? Not willing, perhaps, to imagine the context out of which this song originated?
Glibly rewriting a slavery-era African American expression of hope and determination should give us all pause.
There’s an air of hubris in this wordsmithing, and a lack of insight.
Joining together to sing “there is more love right here” to me smacks of self-satisfaction and self-centredness. In a world filled with have-nots, the haves glorying in their wealth, their abundance of blessings. We have hymns of thanksgiving. Can’t we sing them, instead of this awkward revision?
It’s been my experience that Unitarian Universalists shy away from sharing experiences of loss and suffering, and are uncomfortable with needing or wanting or asking for help. I think many UUs don’t like to publicly admit that we are anything but autonomous, self-determining masters of our own destinies.
In the public privacy that is worship, can we admit that we are sometimes in need? Can we pour out our desire for what is lacking in our lives?
We look upon the misery of the world but don’t always see. We look at the misery of the world and see what we are going to do about it. This laudable desire to improve the world, to make our social order more fair and equitable, to build an environmentally sustainable and just economy is to be celebrated.
And the practice of compassion must go with it, or we become clanging know-it-alls and a sounding cymbal of self-righteousness. Compassion, as the word’s Latin roots suggest, is the ability to suffer with. To enter into the suffering of another is to acknowledge and accept their subjectivity. To attempt to understand what it feels like, to feel their pain.
Can singing a song do all this for white Unitarian Universalists? Perhaps. But not if we erase the words we find uncomfortable. Not if, in so doing, we erase the history and experience—the story—of a people.
Unitarianism and Universalism each began as religious movements grounded in an optimistic religious philosophy. The world, and humankind within it, were imperfect but perfectible. A loving God conquered all.
This theologia gloriae has been the dominant mode in Christianity. (Which is supremely ironic given that Christianity has at its centre a suffering God, a God who suffers-with the world and all its creatures). Uncertainty and ambiguity are pushed to the side. The via negativa, the way of negation, gives up certainty and the positive affirmations of who and what the divine is, in favour of humility and honest questioning.
A theology of glory is triumphalist. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes:
“Triumphalism refers to the tendency in all strongly held worldviews, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting adherents unflinching belief and loyalty. Such a tendency is triumphalistic in the sense that it triumphs—at least in its own self-estimate—over all ignorance, uncertainty, doubt, and incompleteness, as well, of course, as over every other point of view.”
Theologia gloriae is the theological underpinning of American Christian triumphalism, the bright light of rightness that allows for no shade or shadow, no ambiguity or doubt. Stumbling around in the dark, crying out for light, is not the American Christian way. Our God triumphs and the anguish of the world will be conquered.
The Unitarian Universalist gloss on this theology of glory which we inherited, is that we ourselves are the source and power of the world’s redemption. We ourselves are capable of putting an end to suffering. Racial and economic injustice, sexism and homophobia, climate change and other evils will be vanquished by our advancing guard of yellow-shirted UUs, marching as to war.
Can we take time to acknowledge that we are not there yet? That we are powered by our love for the world and our compassion for those who suffer? Can we take time to lament? To grieve that there is not enough goodness and trust and solidarity in the world? To grieve that there is not enough love in the world?
That there is more love somewhere? And that we will keep on until we find it?
When I sing “There Is More Love Somewhere,” I enter into that inward space of not-yet, of acknowledging that the way things are is often unjust, unkind. But justice and kindness will be ours. Peace and joy will be ours.
Knowing that what I am singing is the hope and yearning of people whose traumatic and brutal circumstance I can only imagine, when I sing this song, I lament for the way things are. I lament the current social order.
I lament my present circumstances that are incomplete. I long for more love, more joy, more peace and I lift that longing up in an act of worship, an act of prayer.
Will you please join me in singing hymn #95, “There Is More Love Somewhere”?
Thanks. This was a beautiful, wise, and necessary message. ~Sebastian
Excellent commentary, Peter, on what I also see as a real “Achilles heel” theologically in Unitarian Universalism. The UU’s revision of these words to this wonderful old spiritual is the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of a certain hubris and smugness that is not an attractive quality in our denomination. As you point out, It’s reflected in the tendency to believe “Unitarian Universalists know better than less enlightened people about what they should have been singing .” You hit the nail on the head with that one!
I consider this one of your best pieces of writing that I’ve been fortunate to read. I do hope you will continue to share these thoughts both from the pulpit and in a larger forum than this blog. Amen!
Reblogged this on The Widow's Mite-y Blog and commented:
Amen! I can’t state this any better myself.
Yeah. And there’s a time and place to sing “There is more love right here…we’re gonna keep on loving boldly…” – like when you’re struggling to offer radical hospitality to people bent on disrupting your worship service, and your response is to say: “If you can be respectful, you can stay; if not, we invite you to leave.” At a time like that, it’s good to sing to ourselves, “There is more love right here” – more love than we feel like offering – and “we’re gonna keep on loving boldly” – even in the face of this hostility and disrespect. We sing this at First UU Church in New Orleans to help ourselves in such moments to live the values to which we are committed.
So before we get hung up on words (yet another characteristic Unitarian Universalist sin) or righteous about how much history we know (or don’t know, or assume we know better than ), let’s stop to consider what contexts might render the altered words profound or spiritually useful. Behind an alternate usage might be not a triumphalist perspective, but a different kind of prayer.
I had not yet heard of this revision, so if it is widespread in UU congregations or events I’ve missed it. Nevertheless, the theological critique holds true for more than just that one example. Thanks for publishing this.
Peter, I am very gratefull for your reflections and analysis and though I do not always take the opertunity to say so but you offer a meaningfull ministry through the words you share online. In many ways I agree with what you are saing though want to offer one cautionary consideration and share a point that applies to many of our number. 1st I just want to offer a warning against making African American’s an exceptional group and theirs an exceptional experience. I don’t think you have done that hear but fflirt on the edges. This is not to say that they do not know a particular and unique experience of opression only that we do not serve any group well to religate them to status of angel or demon – and likewise I find that transforming a person or people’s real and lived experience into scripture distances us from that experience – it lets us get away with the easy side of “I can never know what it is like for ——–(fill in group identity)—-.
The second point is something that nearly everyone does which is assumes that UU’s are well off. I get that for those of us who are white there is always white privildege and that is no small advantage. But we need to start recognizing that our congregations and those who make up the membership of our religious movement more broadly constituted are members of the 1 percent- in fact many are not even living in the relative comfort of the lingering remnant of the middle class. It is an assumption which may be pushing those who have never been part of the ecconomically secure or who have lost that security durring the recession off the radar and out of the pews– the very people who might be much more apt to resist changing the words because they can relate to the longing for something more.
Thanks for your comment, Ralph. I serve a predominately white and anglo congregation in an affluent US suburb, and so that is the context in which I offer this reflection.
The same could just about be said of the church I attend but in my 3 adult household scraped through one more year thanks to monthly food bank visits, qualifying for lower energy rates, doing without even Obama care for 2 of us and not a few hungry belly nights. My point was that we make assumptions about the communities and people we associate with and don’t always know that there is true need there that goes unseen — some of these folk could be hidden among those who fall of the roles and while we explain not seeing them much as discontent with this or that program or leader but again it may be that they have been hit bad by the recession. I don’t mean that there is never a time to speak to the affluence in our midst but I would be really surprised if there isn’t some who deal with another reality after all this isn’t something a bring up at a church event I attend.
We UU’s pay way too much attention to words of hymns. Why is it “hubris” to change words to hymns but OK to criticize when it is done. Hubris is as hubris does. I just know that from my experience, people listen better after they have had a chance to stand up and sing and MOVE a little. I’m fine with any hymn that does that, and we can say “scrabbled eggs” over and over for all the difference it makes to me. The point is to get some energy moving.
Reblogged this on Sally Ember, Ed.D. and commented:
This is excellent. Thanks for your thoughts and for posting. I completely agree, and this is a beautiful, yearning song AS IT IS.
A wonderful and thoughtful piece about one of my favorite songs. I am having one of those “and/both rather than either/or” moments. I love this song and sing it boldly whenever it comes (sometimes just in my own head) and have sung both versions. When I sing the original lyrics, I feel immersed in the shared experience of lament and aching desire. When I sing the altered lyrics, I am reminded of all that my church strives to be for those whose lives consist of more lament and more aching desire that I will probably ever experience.
Such wonderful timing on your part Rev Boullata. This morning at First Parish Church in Taunton we will be celebrating that grand opening of our Community Outreach Center. If I shed a tear, it will be because this song, both versions, will be playing loudly in my head.
“When I sing the altered lyrics, I am reminded of all that my church strives to be for those whose lives consist of more lament and more aching desire that I will probably ever experience.” Well said, Barry. This gives me a good understanding of why a person might want to sing the other lyrics.
Reblogged this on Gathered by the Fire and commented:
A wonderfully thoughtful and inspired piece about this beautiful song and our propensity to change the lyrics.
As a person who is trying out UUism, I apprecaite this examination. I have felt the hubris in the attitiudes of many UU members. Where they are in their spiritual journey is superior to all others and they have reached the summit by not recognizing any possibilty of God(s). In this way, they are not welcoming to people who may have other beliefs, who may have retained some parts of Christian theology. I find it bothersome that the words God, faith, spirituality are frowned upon in the UU churches I have attended to the point that hyms are changed to omit references to God Other faiths, except Christianity are acceptable for intellectual discussion and study; Christianity is so offensive that it is not even worhty of discussion.. The overall impression I get is that UUs have opted for no religion rather than a recognition of the viability of many spiritual paths
Lynne, oh dear! I’m sorry to hear of your experiences exploring Unitarian-Universalism that feel so negative and lacking in spiritual elements to you. My own experience as an adult who first joined a UU church about 35 years ago has been very different. But it’s only been one church, in the same town, though with many different ministers. But a common thread here has been an openness to exploring the great truths of world religions.Our own church has had many Bible Studies classes through the years, has celebrated Passover, and generally felt open to the many truths which all the great religions embrace. In fact, one of the things that first attracted us to join was when our 9 year old son visited the Sunday School class where they were learning about “Jesus and His Gang!” Good luck and perhaps another UU Church in your area will have more offerings of the type you are looking for.
Lynne, I am sorry this is your experience, though I must admit it is a common one in many of our congregations. You may be interested in the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, who minister to Christian UUs in a variety of ways, including on the Web. http://www.uuchristian.org
While I think it’s important to lift up and critique UU’s changing of words in hymns, I don’t know how much I agree with those critiques–and particularly this case.
For starters, perhaps we could stop and consider for a minute that it’s OK for music to evolve–even music that is considered sacred. Singing new or different lyrics for any song doesn’t actually change the lyrics of the song, let alone the essence of the song. The song as it was originally conceived remains intact no matter how many different ways it is sung thereafter.
As a musician, I embrace the idea of music as a living tradition. I love the idea that music can be re-imagined by different people or groups in ways that resonate with them. As a teenager, I went to see local punk/hardcore bands who would proudly proclaim that if you don’t know the lyrics to their songs, you should feel free to make up your own and sing/scream along with them. These weren’t songs about trifles–many were about things like police brutality, domestic abuse, and friends who passed away far too soon. But there was a recognition that music belongs to everyone and that it is not only acceptable but virtuous to act accordingly.
Furthermore, I feel like this example is being overstated and overanalyzed to a degree. The idea that this is an example of “Unitarian Universalists know[ing] better than less enlightened people what they should have been singing” seems to me to be a drastic overreaction. There are many reasons UUs change lyrics to songs but I really don’t think that “the people who wrote this song were wrong, this is what they should have been singing” is one of them. We don’t change lyrics to better suit the people who wrote them, we change them to better suit ourselves–or even just certain situations.
“Are white Unitarian Universalists not capable of identifying with Black experience? Not willing, perhaps, to imagine the context out of which this song originated?”
While this question, in a larger context, is an important one, I think it’s an overreaction to ask it as a reaction to this particular phenomenon.
“Joining together to sing ‘there is more love right here’ to me smacks of self-satisfaction and self-centredness. In a world filled with have-nots, the haves glorying in their wealth, their abundance of blessings.”
I completely disagree and this brings me to my next point which is that I feel like the new verse is much more in the spirit of the original lyrics than you’re implying. I don’t feel like it implies a sense of ultimacy or completeness. When I sing “there is more love right here and I’m gonna keep on cuz I’ve found it,” I feel it expounds upon the original message. Yes, there is more love somewhere and I have proof! There is more love right here! That doesn’t mean all the love is here. There is STILL more love somewhere–and that is, in fact, implied in “there is more love right here.”
For that matter, I feel that’s a big part of the reason why I don’t think I’ve ever heard this verse of the song sung on its own, as a replacement for the original lyrics. This article seems predicated on the idea that these new lyrics are replacing the old ones, which has not been my experience the few times I’ve heard it sung. I’ve always heard it sung after many repetitions of “there is more love/hope/faith/peace/etc.” To me, it’s meant to be an addendum to the story being told in the original song. Not because we’ve found the love that those who sang the original were looking for but because we realize–as did they, I believe, which is the implicit hope of the song that the new verse further articulates–that it’s always been right here and we want to celebrate it even as we remember a time when such celebration wasn’t as useful as the lament articulated in the original lyrics.
Reblogged this on World of Values and commented:
I’m divided about this, after reading this post.
I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever been present in a UU setting where the the African Amercanness of TIMLS has even been acknowledged, let alone used or the point. Every single time I can remember a congregation singing TIMLS, it has been about using the tonal progression to milk the emotions. Love, hope, peace, joy, sway, catch in the throat, I’m gonna keep on, sob, resolve. Yes, in SLT the notice that this is an African American hymn appears mid page. But I only remember singing it without the book since it has such an easily sung repetitive structure. If we’re going to insist that we not change lyrics, we need to pair that with only using it in settings where its original content, form, and function are part of what we are trying to say. The medium is the message – but only if we let it be.
I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever been present in a UU setting where the African Amercanness of TIMLS has even been acknowledged, let alone used or the point. Every single time I can remember a congregation singing TIMLS, it has been about using the tonal progression to milk the emotions. Love, hope, peace, joy, sway, catch in the throat, I’m gonna keep on, sob, resolve. Yes, in SLT the notice that this is an African American hymn appears mid page. But I only remember singing it without the book since it has such an easily sung repetitive structure. If we’re going to insist that we not change lyrics, we need to pair that with only using it in settings where its original content, form, and function are part of what we are trying to say.