If not belief then what?

Sometimes when people ask me if Unitarian Universalism is Christian, I’ll reply: No, it’s post-Christian. It’s a good way to describe us, partly because it’s so ill-defined, and let’s face it we are an ill-defined religious group. But recently I’ve been thinking that maybe I should start saying that Unitarian Universalism is a post-believing religion; not that we believe nothing, but that for us belief is not the way we define ourselves.

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, by Shane J. D. Cohen (1987), part of the “Library of Early Christianity” published by Westminster John Knox. Cohen examines the side-by-side emergence of early Christianity and rabbinical Judaism. In a chapter titled “Sectarian and Normative,” Cohen writes:

Christianity is a creedal religion, and Christian sectarianism too is creedal. The vast majority of the sectarian debates of early Christianity centered on theological questions, especially the nature and interrelationship of the first two persons of the Trinity. Judaism, however, was not (and, in large measure, is not) a creedal religion. The ‘cutting edge’ of ancient Jewish sectarianism was not theology but law. Abundant evidence makes this point clear… [Cohen gives a number of examples]. All this material emphasizes the legal character of the debates among the sects and ignores or slights philosophical and theological matters. [p. 128]

Obviously, we Unitarian Universalists are not concerned with correct behavior in terms of laws set forth by religious authorities (thus our ministers do not have to learn some Unitarian Universalist equivalent of the Mishnah and Talmud, a body of law). As a non-creedal religion — as post-Christian religion — Unitarian Universalism certainly doesn’t concern itself much with correct belief.

Indeed, as someone who grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, I find that I have basically no interest in knowing what someone merely believes;I want to know who they are as a religious person including where they fit into a covenantal community. I find myself talking about theology a lot, but the branches of theology that interest me are ecclesiology (i.e., how people come into religious community together) and theological anthropology/sociology (i.e., who persons/peoples are religiously speaking).

4 thoughts on “If not belief then what?

  1. Bill Baar

    I’m almost in perfect agreement with you. Our thinking parallels and I don’t know if that’s
    because of your stint in Geneva. I really don’t recall talking to you about this or listening
    to you preach this.

    But the word belief doesn’t hold much meaning for me. I do feel we are in a post-Christian
    world (I find Ratzinger interesting exactly because he deals with this post-Christian notion).

    I’m reading Mahmoud Ayoub’s survey of Islam titled Islam: Faith and History. Islam
    has always held great appeal and interest to me. Our Theological Study Group in Geneva is
    studying it. Ayoub said it was a religion focused more on Orthopraxis instead of Orthodoxy.

    Something I took to mean as doing the right thing as opposed to believing the right thing.

    I don’t know if that really describes what we do at a Church like Geneva though. There is
    something more going on than doing the right things. There is unity of belief but
    it’s not articulated well. No one maybe feels a need to even do so.

    I think the answers are going to be found though in …ecclesiology (i.e., how people come
    into religious community together) and theological anthropology/sociology (i.e., who
    persons/peoples are religiously speaking).

    I was surprized to see that a minority opinion (I think) in the discussion over at Philocraties.

    Happy New Years,

    the snow has melted and it rained here today. Gloomy as always this time of year but I suppose
    New Bedford no better.

  2. Administrator

    As I understand it, “orthopraxis” has come to be an accepted term for those religions that emphasize correct observance of and adherence to religious laws, e.g. Judaism, and presumably Islam. If we could ignore accepted useage, “orthopraxis” might be a good word to describe the direction in which Unitarian Universalism is evolving, because “ortho” means correct and “praxis” means action (or rational action in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics).

    To get around the accepted useage of “orthopraxis,” maybe we have to invent another word (just as my hero Charles Saunders Peirce changed the name of his philosophy to “pragmaticism” to distinguish himself from those upstarts of pragmatism Dewey and James). I don’t know enough classical Greek to be sure, but doesn’t “prattein” mean acting, as in acting in the world? –thus for Unitarian Universalists, how about “orthoprattein”?

    Or is this even the correct word? –I’m not sure we quite know what direction we’re headed in yet….

  3. Bill Baar

    Jamie: yes, I agree

    Dan: yes, I agree. Anytime you trade a Greek word for an every day word, it’s progess.

    wish I had more time for this as these comments both get at the direction I think is
    interesting to follow.

    I did read an essay in first things by Jonathon Last on God Blogs and the danger of
    the discussion getting thinner and thinnger. He ends writing, go to church.

    The community is the most important part really… I like the praxis part probably because
    like most americans, I like to think I’m pratical guy… rambling on the net can lead
    to thin air maybe… so when you get down to it the community is the key… but I do
    hold a lot of hope for virtual communities.

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