UU World magazine just put a good article by Paul Rasor on their Web site. Titled “Can Unitarian Universalism Change?” the article is an excerpt from the Berry Street lecture Paul gave last June.
Using demographic and other solid evidence, Paul makes the case that in an increasingly multiracial society, Unitarian Universalist congregations are predominantly white. In other words, we are increasingly out of step with the surrounding culture. In other words, we are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Paul goes on to say that our Universalist heritage offers a solid theological foundation on which we could build a truly multiracial, egalitarian religion:
Early Universalism was a communal faith. ‘Communal’ here means more than a group of individuals who share a common belief and come together for mutual support and worship, the way we might understand it today. Instead, in this form of communal theology, the individual was removed from the religious equation. Universalists insisted that our personal salvation was no more important than anyone else’s salvation. As Ann Lee Bressler, author of The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880, puts it, Universalism ‘encouraged the believer to think of his own interests as inseparably linked with the eternal welfare of the whole body of humanity.’
This theological core led to a radical egalitarianism. The American emphasis, shared by most Protestant denominations, including Unitarians, had always been on equality of opportunity, at least in principle, while in practice tolerating vast inequalities of outcome. But Universalism’s egalitarian theological doctrine became the basis for a truly egalitarian social doctrine — ‘an egalitarianism not of opportunity, but of desert,’ or outcome. In other words, Universalism was not simply pluralistic; it was radically inclusive.
However, a radical Universalist inclusivity is going to ruffle lots of feathers of current Unitarian Universalists who place an extremely high value on personal and individual freedom. In my reading of the Treatise on Atonement, Hosea Ballou’s foundational theological statement of Universalism, Ballou places great restrictions on free will: you don’t get to choose whether or not you wish to be saved, you will be saved no matter what. Unitarians placed much more emphasis on free will:– they believed that you affect your ultimate destiny by the moral and ethical choices you make. Thomas Starr King, who was affiliated with both denominations, famously said that the difference between Unitarians and Universalists was that the Unitarians believed they were so good that God would not send them to hell, while the Universalists believed God was so good that God would not send them to hell.This witticism accurately represents a deep theological difference between the Unitarians and Universalists.
Today, Unitarian Universalism is dominated by Unitarian theology and culture — just like Unitarianism of 100 years ago, Unitarian Universalism today is a denomination that aims to provide a safe haven for well-educated whites with substantial incomes who want to believe that they have maximal control over the course of their lives. The average Unitarian Universalist wants a theology that reassures him or her that people of good will can bring about heaven on earth progressively and through their own efforts; that, in fact, reassures him or her that he or she is that person of good will who is bringing about that gradual progressive change for the better.
The notion that individuals may actually be relatively helpless to further goodness in the world, and the related notion that there might be a power greater than an individual human which can further goodness in the world, is anathema to most Unitarian Universalists today. These two notions lay at the core of Universalism, and were related to a further notion set forth by Ballou:– that the final outcome for all human beings was not a slow progressive process wherein inequalities would gradually disappear, but rather a sudden and utter equality. Thus the moral imperative on earth is not to institute gradual equality over a period of years or centuries;– the moral imperative is to allow heaven to burst forth here and now on earth;– and in particular, to allow sudden equality to burst forth now in our lives, especially in our congregations.
As a contemporary Universalist, I belive that heaven is not some abstract transcendent state awaiting us upon our death; rather, it is a state that already exists in the here-and-now, a state which can be called the Web of Life, a term which is a synonym for the Kingdom of Heaven. (1) Most Unitarian Universalists think of the Web of Life in Unitarian terms — it is the web of relationships between human beings and other species, where we Unitarians are probably best suited to tell other human beings the appropriate relationships we may have with other species. As a Universalist, I would say the Web of Life must include intraspecies relationships as well; as an altruistic (and, I might add, altricial) species, we literally cannot live without other human beings. Thus, the Web of Life demand of us a radical inclusivity and egalitarianism.
If I were to predict the future based on current trends, here’s what I think will happen in Unitarian Universalism: A few larger upper middle class white Unitarian congregations (and I mean Unitarian, not UU), the ones located in upper middle class white enclaves, will continue to thrive. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations will try to retain their upper middle class white trappings, and will continue to shrink relative to total surrounding population; and because the costs of maintaining churches continue to outpace inflation, because these congregations won’t adapt and grow, they will gradually drift into financial insolvency. Obviously, that financial insolvency will be closely linked to the inability to move beyond white upper middle class values and theology; theological rigidity will drive financial obsolescence. A few — a very few — Unitarian Universalist congregations will do the theological and cultural work to become radically inclusive and egalitarian, i.e., they will live out the Universalist side of our theological heritage, and these congregations will thrive and grow.
That’s my take on the future of our denomination; of course I reserve the right to change my mind. What do you think?
(1) This term comes from Bernard Loomer, the liberal Baptist theologian who also joined a Unitarian Universalist church late in his life.