Greek Civilization and UU Governance

When we officially return to homeschooling next fall, Quentin (my 8 year old) will begin reading age-appropriate translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Despite a few attempts, I have never read these myself, but was hoping to learn along with or a little ahead of my son. So when the opportunity presented itself to take a free online course through HarvardX this semester, entitled "The Ancient Greek Hero" and largely composed of the study of those two Homeric epics (come join me if you like, the class only started today, and is semi self-paced), I jumped at the chance.

The introduction to the course involves some discussion of the Ancient Greek world, political structures, and civilization in general. As I read, my brain was quick to make associations between the writing and the topics marinating deeper in my brain (about religion and Unitarian Universalism, in particular).

In The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Professor Gregory Nagy begins to explain the Greek "city-state" and what that meant to the citizens.
The ancient Greeks would agree that they shared the same language, despite the staggering variety of local dialects. They would even agree that they shared a civilization, though they would be intensely contentious about what exactly their shared civilization would be. Each city-state had its own institutions, that is, its own government, constitution, laws, calendars, religious practices, and so on. Both the sharing and the contentiousness lie at the root of the very essence of the city-state. What I am translating here as 'city-state' is the Greek word polis. This is the word from which our words political and politics are derived.

Read this paragraph again, replacing "Greek" with "UU," "civilization" with "religion," and "city-state" with "congregation." Sounds just about right, doesn't it? And the word for UU governance is polity (a word that confounded me for far too long - why do we UUs, who claim to be a religion for the huddled masses, who want to expand, insist on using language that turns us into a secret society, an old boys' club that, even when you attend, seems impossible to break into linguistically? Another post for another day, I suppose), from the same root, and in fact is its own political structure in Ancient Greek civilization. I'd like to explore that in more depth some day as well.

Nagy goes on to clarify Aristotle's discussion of polis and humanity.
Here is the original Greek wording, ho anthrōpos phusei politikon zōion (Aristotle Politics I 1253a2–3), which can be translated literally this way: 'A human [anthrōpos] is by nature an organism of the polis [politikon zōion]'. [2] We see in this wording the basis for a distinctly Greek concept of civilization. What Aristotle is really saying here is that humans achieve their ultimate potential within a society that is the polis. From this point of view, the ultimate in human potential is achieved politically.
Eventually, the few consistencies amongst the Greek city-states are described, including festivals, knowledge bases, and poetry. Continuing the UU analogy (we do have some things in common, after all, don't we?), one could argue that we UUs can best reach our own human (and spiritual?) potential within the societal structure that is affiliation - society, a congregation- in all its benefits and struggles. This seems a profound statement, and I'm interested to learn more. Unfortunately, this topic is only tangential to my coursework, and indeed, I have much more to read before I've finished the week's assignment.

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  1. Thanks for sharing this. I have been reading Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches, which lays out the same background, but with Calvinist New England as the backdrop. The title of the book comes from a verse from 3 Amos, which says, "Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?" The tendency toward schism within Christianity suggests that the answer is no (and in fact, that very verse was apparently used by the "orthodox" congregationalists during the Unitarian Controversy of the early 1800s to explain why they needed to draw the circle tighter and go their own way.) Reading this, I couldn't help but think of the current calls to define what it is that makes us essentially UU rather than being a "not-that" religion . . . and a corresponding concern on my part that we are going to draw our own circle too narrowly--by excluding, for example, those who don't toe the line theologically and (more likely) politically. Oddly, it was somewhat encouraging to me to discover that unitarians have been drawing these lines for centuries, and that they are in fact necessary on some level, as is the pushback that goes along with redefining our own boundaries. With this added perspective, I am now glad that our movement has enough vitality to be having these sorts of difficult conversations from within; I just hope that we begin in a spirit of love, and return to that spirit frequently. In short, I do think we can "be agreed" on some things, or that some of us can, and that a clear statement--not a dogma, mind you, but a shared expression of where the boundaries currently lie--could be quite helpful to UU as a movement.


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