These notes are addressed to my fellow Unitarian Universalists, although they may be of some interest to other liberal religious persons. I’ve been thinking about this question: Where do we draw our theological boundaries? Having some sense of where our boundaries are will help us to answer another questions: whom do we keep out, and whom should we be seeking out to welcome in? Mind you, these are just notes — which means your thoughts, reactions, and comments will be most welcome.
A. Do we have theological boundaries?
As Unitarian Universalists, we say that we don’t assume that we have the only correct answer to things. We are, however, torn between two ideas: (1) whether ours is ultimately the best religion, and thus all other people should want to be part of us; or (2) whether we are one religious community within a much larger society, and as such we are in dialogue with other, co-equal religious communities.
(1) The former idea probably comes from the Christian tradition out of which we have come, where many Christians have the idea that ultimately everyone reaches heaven through Christianity (although there are plenty of Christians who now say that there are multiple paths to salvation, see e.g. Mark Heim’s Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religions). Among Unitarian Universalists, this idea takes a somewhat different form, with people saying that our goal is world community where everyone is welcome — into our congregations.
(2) The latter idea assumes that we’re not the religion for everybody in the whole world, and then the contested area is how many “outsiders” want to become part of our religious community. In practice, the general answer to this last question is that we only allow in enough people to make up for those who die or leave UUism (since our membership numbers in North America have been essentially flat for years). However, it is also possible to hold that there are significant numbers of additional people in North America who would feel at home within our theological boundaries.
I hold with the latter idea: I don’t believe that we’re the religion for everybody, I don’t believe that we are the new, up-and-coming “universal religion” that all right-thinking people will soon join (and that all wrong-thinking people will soon have to join, like it or not), and I don’t believe that we can create some kind of religious community that everyone will feel welcome in. I do believe that we have a unique and important religious viewpoint that is very valuable for the world to hear; and I believe that we have a key role to play in promoting inter-religious dialogue in the world at large.
If you’re like me, and don’t believe that we’re the religion for everyone in the world, then we have to answer the key question: where do we draw our theological boundaries? Having some sense of where our boundaries are will help us to answer another questions: whom do we keep out, and whom should we be seeking out to welcome in?
B. Where do we draw our theological boundaries?
Let’s come up with a rough sense of where our theological boundaries lie.
(1) First and foremost, the use of reason in religion: we think that our reasoning faculty should play a key role in our religious life together. Intuition has also been important among us, at least since the Transcendentalist movement within Unitarianism and the spiritualism movement within Universalism, but intuition is a later addition whereas the use of reason in religion is a foundational principle. Blind faith, however, is deprecated or denied among us, and someone who insists on blind faith as a primary religious modality would not feel comfortable among us.
Of course, many other religious communities value the use of reason, but we seem to be distinctive in the extent to which we value the use of reason. Thus, I believe this is a useful theological boundary, which tends to keep in those who would use reason in religion to the greatest extent possible, and tends to keep out those who deprecate or deny the use of reason in religion.
(2) Secondly, feminist theology has been important for us at least since first-wave feminism. In North America, the Universalists were the first denomination to officially recognize the ordination of women back in the 19th C. The Unitarians may have been less influenced by first-wave feminism, but certainly a number of prominent first-wave feminists found a congenial home among the Unitarians, at least for part of their lives. Second-wave feminism became central to our theological identity in the 1970’s. The now much-beloved “seven principles” were a 1984 rewrite of older but quite similar principles, a rewrite deeply informed by second-wave feminism; the importance of the “seven principles” today shows the centrality of feminist theology among us. We could comfortably say that a person who believes that women and girls should play a subordinate role in religious communities would not feel comfortable among us. Thus, we have identified another theological boundary, which tends to keep in those who feel comfortable with feminist theologies, and tends to keep out those who feel uncomfortable with feminist theologies.
(3) Thirdly, the theology of the social gospel. We privilege saving the world through social justice actions, whereas we give less emphasis to individual salvation. This is in direct contrast to certain evangelical Christian communities that privilege personal salvation — when such communities take their religion out into the world, they would be likely to place more importance on converting other souls, as opposed to providing more concrete assistance.
(4) and (5) Two emerging theological emphases among us include: anti-racist theologies (still iffy, but gaining momentum); and GLBT-friendly theologies (widespread, though by no means universal among us). GLBT-friendly theology is still very new with us (less than fifty years old), and quite a few Unitarian Universalists are still not entirely comfortable in religious communities that include gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. Anti-racist theology has a long but problematic history with us — some early North American Universalists were preaching abolition in the 1770’s — but anti-racist theology quickly becomes political, especially in the United States, and there is little unanimity among us when it comes to politics (see below). Nevertheless, we are seeing significant movement towards anti-racist theology becoming central — the fact that we are the first historically white denomination to select an African American to head our denomination is symbolically very important.
(6) Often, what might be called political theology is used by political liberals in the United States to try to draw boundaries in practice in our local congregations. However, it’s quite difficult to draw meaningful boundaries based on some kind of alleged political theology. Most UU’s have centrist or somewhat liberal politics, but there are significant numbers of both conservatives and leftists among us. It may be safer to say that we tend towards the libertarian end of the political compass, although we also value order and organization over disorder and anarchy, and we tend to support democratic/republican governments while distancing ourselves from truly libertarian anarchy. On the political action scale that ranges from purity (think Greenpeace) to pragmatic (think Environmental Defense Fund), we tend to act pragmatically, willing to make strategic alliances, while talking as if we valued purity, i.e., talking as if we’re always “speaking truth to power” and never compromising our highest moral standards, so we oscillate between these two political poles. In short, our political theology is characterized by diversity more than anything else — while politically liberal/centrist Unitarian Universalists may use politics to exclude or marginalize conservatives and leftists (speaking as a leftist, I have direct experience of this), I don’t believe they can do so on defensible theological grounds.
(7) and (8) There are quite a few Unitarian Universalists who would say that we should have a theological boundary pertaining humanist theology, that is, lack of belief in God. Die-hard humanists have been known to say that no theists should be a part of their local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Less extremist humanists have been known to say that theism is dying out among us, or should die out among us. However, it has become obvious that there is no consensus on this issue among us. But UU humanist theologian William R. Jones described a humano-centric theology back in the early 1970’s that can unites UU humanists and theists. To oversimplify, Jones pointed out that humano-centric theists and humanists are united in their understanding that some father-figure God is not going to bail us out of all our troubles; therefore, said Jones, both humanists and humano-centric theists have to act as if we human beings are fully responsible for our own destiny. By contrast, theo-centric theists might tell us to “put our trust in God,” “God will save us from all our problems” — a theological stance that would not be particularly welcome, or would be less extreme and more nuanced, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Humano-centric theology could be considered a central theology among us, but humanism cannot be so considered.
C. Whom should we be seeking out to welcome in?
Based on the above arguments, I believe that our Unitarian Universalist religious communities could welcome significant additional numbers of persons. I suggest that there are lots of people who insist on using reason in religion, but who are not currently in our religious communities. Similarly, I suggest that there are plenty of people who think women and girls are just as important as men and boys when it comes to religion, and/or who value feminine images of the divine as much as masculine images of the divine. Similarly, I suggest that those comfortable with humano-centric theology will be welcome among us. Certain local congregations may be religious communities that welcome people who hold anti-racist and/or GLBT-friendly theologies.
However, I am only talking about theological boundaries here. Other boundaries will be at work, including political boundaries, socio-economic boundaries, race and ethnicity boundaries, boundaries based on liturgical style, etc.
I argue that we do have theological boundaries, as follows:
(1) We privilege the use of reason in religion, over such things as blind faith.
(2) Feminist theology is central to us, particularly second-wave feminism.
(3) Humano-centric theology is central to us.
(4) Anti-racist theologies, and GLBT-friendly theologies, currently represent weak boundaries, but they are growing in strength.
Based on these boundaries, I further argue that there are large numbers of persons who would feel theologically comfortable among us; however, there are other boundaries at work which may keep these people out.