Category Archives: Theology

The year ahead: Good things to watch for in Unitarian Universalism

I’m a Universalist at heart, and Universalism is a hope-filled faith, so as I look ahead to 2011 I can’t help but seek out signs of hope within Unitarian Universalism. Here are some of the things that give me hope for the coming year:

Community ministry: Most of our local congregations continue to stagnate and even decline, and they are not very good advertisements for our faith tradition. But our Unitarian Universalist community ministers are out doing all kinds of good work in the world; they serve as hospital chaplains, military chaplains, directors of non-profit organizations, social service providers, etc., etc. These are the people who are out there letting people know who we are. We have to figure out how to support these people without locking them into the weird narrow conception of congregational polity that now dominates us.

Three experiments in new congregation starts:

This coming year, I’ll be watching three very different approaches at starting new congregations. Each of these three new congregations does not fit the typical model of new congregation starts within Unitarian Universalism — no fellowships here, no existing congregation supporting a new congregation, no extension ministry, no support from the Unitarian Universalist Association. One is a project to revitalize a moribund church; another focuses on serving the wider community rather than members and friends; and one an entrepreneurial church start common in other denominations but not within Unitarian Universalism. Continue reading

Why so many Americans think religion is stupid

Middle-class American religion sometimes goes out of its way to provide very comforting interpretations of the Bible. And yes, I include Unitarian Universalists in this sweeping generalization, for reasons I will outline below. However, comforting American middle-class interpretations of the Bible sound forced and it is pretty hard to take them seriously, as Diana Butler Bass suggests in this passage from her 2009 book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story:

At the height of the Liberation Theology movement in the 1980s, my friend Brad lived in Latin America, where he participated in a base community, a kind of radical Biblical study group in an impoverished village. Lay members rotated leadership, each week reading a text, offering an interpretation drawn from their own experience, and trying to relate scriptural stories to their own lives in order to inspire justice and social change.

One week the story was from Matthew 19, in which Jesus commands the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor to find eternal life…. Brad, an American evangelical, had grown up in a middle-class family and attended a good college. “It was fascinating to hear my new friends interpret this passage in such a different context,” Brad said. “They were very poor and they understood it very literally. They were comfortable with Jesus’s rejection of wealth.”

Brad admitted that he felt uncomfortable, however, especially when one person turned to him and asked how “our brothers and sisters in America” interpreted the story. Brad explained that Americans do not read the story literally. Rather, evangelicals take the direction spiritually. “Jesus insists that we give up whatever means the most to us in order to follow him, not necessarily our possessions. The story isn’t about money.”

The group fell silent, and Brad was unsure of what he had said. Finally, one of the leaders asked how they could trust that Brad was really a Christian since it was obvious that he did not “take the Bible seriously.”

As for Unitarian Universalists, we are more likely to spend our time arguing about the validity of standard middle-class American Christianity, which means we don’t have to face up to the really challenging implications of Jesus’s social message, implications that might challenge our comfortable middle-class existences. It is more convenient for our generation of Unitarian Universalists to dismiss Christianity with the argument that the Christianity we see around us, or in which we were raised, is puerile and shallow.

Similarly, what Unitarian Universalists think of as Buddhism too often is an American interpretation that reduces Buddhism to little more than a self-improvement program, one which doesn’t seem to me to have much in common with the challenging philosophy of Siddhartha Gotama.

Lecture four: Religious humanist communities

Fourth and final lecture for a class on UU humanism

For me, it is a basic axiom that religion is lived out in human communities. In the culture wars of the past half century, our society has somehow gotten the mistaken notion that religion can be boiled down to irrational beliefs; that is to say, religion has become equated with a certain narrow subset of ontotheology. From my point of view, however, religious practice comes first, and the explanations come along later to try to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. Praxis antedates theoria; liturgy and practice trump ontotheology. That being said, I think it is worth examining some religious humanist practices in order to better understand the religious side of humanism.

Let’s start with the stereotype of a religious humanist community. According to the stereotype, religious humanism is a religion of the head, not the heart and body. Therefore, religious humanist communities spend their time in endless debate about intellectual matters. Because intellect is highly valued, and because intellect is somehow equated with the possession of college and graduate degrees, status in this stereotypical community is determined in part by an individual’s level of academic attainment: post-docs rank far higher than bachelor’s degrees, and if you only have a high school diploma you’ll be expected to keep your mouth shut. Furthermore, the sciences outrank the humanities by at least two degrees, so that a bachelor’s degree in science trumps a doctoral degree in English literature. This stereotypical religious humanist community vigorously roots out anything that looks, sounds, or smells like more traditional Western religions, so there are no sermons (though there may be lectures and talks), no candles nor much in the way of visual interest, no hymns or psalms (though songs might be allowed), and no reading from scriptures.

Now obviously I have drawn a caricature of religious humanism here. Continue reading

What Unitarians know…

Back in October, the Wall Street Journal reviewed Sam Harris’s new book under the title “What the Unitarians know (and Sam Harris doesn’t).” It’s well-written, as you’d expect of something in the Wall Street Journal, and gets at many of the blind spots of the New Atheists and those who think religion, morality, and ethics can be based on science. You might not agree with it, you may not like the mildly dismissive reference to the “Unitarians,” but definitely worth reading.

Thanks to Dick D. for pointing this out to me!

Lecture 3: A systematic account of humanism

Third lecture in a class on humanism.

I have said that one problem with religious humanism is that there hasn’t been any systematic account of what it means to be a religious humanist. I should state that more precisely: I want to see a systematic account of religious humanism in a style that is popular enough to capture the attention of a wide audience, while scholarly enough to satisfy scholars. 19th century Unitarianism had William Ellery Channing, a good writer who managed to capture a wide audience; Unitarians can also claim Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose prose and poetry continue to shape Unitarian Universalism today. Now maybe it’s a little bit much to ask for another Emerson, but at least humanism could wish for the equivalent of Hosea Ballou, the early 19th century Universalism whose Treatise on Atonement commanded a wide popular audience in its day.

To take a more recent example, the rapid growth of Neopaganism in the last twenty years has been propelled by popular writers like Margot Adler and Starhawk. Now maybe you haven’t heard of Margot Adler and Starhawk, but hundreds of thousands of people have heard of them, and have read their books, and have become Neopagans as a result. Let me put this another way: I see teenagers reading Starhawk, and I see teenagers reading Emerson, but I don’t see teenagers reading anyone who espouses religious humanism.

But it won’t be enough to have a writer who’s popular. Starhawk has convinced a lot of people to become Neopagans because she has offered a comprehensive and systematic account of what it means to be a Neopagan. She has written about how Neopagans can raise their children, how Neopagans can try to make the world a better place, she has outlined a Neopagan ethics, she has shown how Neopagans can create viable and nurturing religious communities. In a sense, Starhawk is even better than Emerson, who may have given us a lot of inspiration for our individual spiritual lives but who didn’t write much about how to create viable and nurturing religious communities. Starhawk is also enough of a thinker that she can be taken seriously by scholars and intellectuals. The general point here is that we need a writer who is popular, and who can be taken seriously intellectually, and who shows people how to live life as a religious humanist. Continue reading

Discussion starter

“God Talk Checklist,” which you’ll find below, is something I came up with for our Coming of Age group. The youth who are participating in the Coming of Age program will be writing a statement of religious identity to present during a worship service in the spring. So how do you get someone to come up with a statement of religious identity? Well, in our society, many people equate God and religion, so one good place to start figuring out your religious identity is to think about where you stand on the God question. That’s what the checklist is designed to do — get you thinking with some degree of precision about where you stand on the God question.

Because the youth and adults who were present tonight found this to be a useful tool for starting a conversation about the God question, so I thought I’d share it here. Remember that it’s designed to be used in a group setting, where you fill it out and share your responses with other people. The checklist starts below the jump.

Continue reading

Lecture 2: Some critiques of humanism

Second lecture in a class on humanism.

If we’re going to do a serious study of humanism, one of the things we have to do is take seriously any serious critiques of humanism. What I’d like to do is go through and give you six possible critiques of humanism, critiques that I consider interesting and worthy of thoughtful consideration. I’m not going to resolve these critiques for you; I’m just going to lay out seven arguments against humanism, and let you do with them what you will.


(1) Critique number one is the critique that humanism is no comfort to persons in a time of crisis. In its crudest aspect, this critique takes the form of saying, Well if you’re a humanist and you get cancer, to whom can you pray? But do not dismiss this critique on the basis of that crude critique.

Jean-Paul Sartre raises this issue in a subplot in his short story “The Wall.” The protagonist in this story was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is captured, sentenced to be executed, and spends his last night in a cell with some others who have also been sentenced to death. The protagonist, who has no apparent belief in God, watches as one of the other condemned prisoners who believes in God gives way to fear. Sartre’s protagonist faces his impending death with courage, and even finds himself relishing his last moments of living, as opposed to the believer who gives way to fear. But is this going to be convincing for most people?

This issue has been framed in other ways. Continue reading

Baseball, Calvinism, and me

I am not watching the Giants game right now. I should be, but there’s no real point.

You see, if you grew up outside Boston as I did, baseball is all mixed up with Calvinism. I don’t have to watch today’s game, because the winner of this World Series was determined at the beginning of time, and nothing the players or fans do today can affect the final outcome. Just as Calvinists knew who the saints were (they were the ones who went to church), we know who the saints are in baseball (they wear pinstripe suits). However, a few baseball teams with long-haried weirdos — like this year’s Giants, and like the 2004 Red Sox — may occasionally win the Series because God likes to keep us mortals guessing.

So I am not going to watch today’s game. I mean, why bother watching if the outcome is predetermined?

Unitarian Universalist Humanism: Introductory lecture

Introductory lecture delivered tonight, in a course in UU humanism:

In this introductory lecture, I’m going to attempt to outline Unitarian Universalist humanism for you. My primary approach in this lecture is going to be based on an approach used by the humanist theologian Anthony Pinn in his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience. After pointing out the inadequacies of theological traditions which merely point towards some ultimate revelation, something beyond what we see and hear and experience in this life, Pinn describes his approach as follows:

“I want to suggest that the task of … constructive theologies … is more in line with [Gordon] Kaufman’s ‘third-order theology’ and Charles Long’s reflections upon the theology of the opqaue. That is to say, theology is deliberate or self-conscious human construction focused upon uncovering and exploring the meaning and structures of religious experience within a larger body of cultural production. It is, by nature, comparative in a way that does not seek to denounce or destructively handle other traditions.”

I find Pinn’s approach to theology to be incredibly useful for at least four reasons. Continue reading