Unsystematic liberal theology: God

Fourth in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Religious liberals perceive themselves as being profoundly ambivalent about God. There are the death-of-God people, there are the humanists, there are the moral atheists, there are the traditionalist theists, there are those who tell the local clergyperson, “I’ll believe whatever I want to believe.”

While most religious liberals believe that they can never agree on questions concerning God, in fact we religious liberals all share several basic beliefs about God:

— We all share a belief in heterodoxy, that is, that our opinions about God will differ. Some of the more theologically sophisticated among us are aware of the wide variety of definitions of god/divinity among those who are more orthodox within their faith traditions; proving or disproving one conception of god/divinity does not prove or disprove other concepts of god/divinity (e.g., disproving Karl Barth’s God does not disprove the Bhagavad Gita’s Krishna); thus a firm belief in heterodoxy seems the only sane response to the bewildering variety of of proofs and disproofs and beliefs and disbeliefs in gods, goddesses, and other divinities.

— We all share a belief that regardless of whether or not god/divinity exists, we are ultimately responsible for our lives. We do not believe it is acceptable to say, “It is God’s will that your baby died”; we know it’s the drunk driver’s fault, or the fault of the drug-resistant staph infection that we are unable to cure, or the fault of a random accident. A theological term for this is the “functional ultimacy of humankind”; that is to say, whether or not you happen to believe/disbelieve in god/divinity, from a functional perspective we all believe that humankind is ultimately responsible, allowing of course for the possibility of random chance.

— Generally speaking, we are less interested in ontology, and more interested in practical ethics. While we do have energetic ontological arguments, e.g., about the existence or non-existence of God, we are more inclined to work to make the world a better place. Those who are more interested in ontology than practical ethics are not likely to remain religious liberals for long. Thus over time the fundamentalist humanists who insist on an orthodoxy of non-belief in God get frustrated with religious liberalism and drift away to form their own orthodox humanist groups; pagans who insist in absolute belief in goddess/es over time find that they are more comfortable in orthodox pagan groups; etc.

Because we are so committed to heterodoxy, it may seem hard to understand why we religious liberals spend so much time arguing about God, when arguments about God are really appropriate only for the orthodox (who actually want to make other people think and believe just like themselves). However, we have to remember that the surrounding culture is dominated by orthodoxy as a mindset; it is a culture in which it is difficult for heterodoxy to survive at all, let alone thrive. It’s a miracle that we manage to hold on to our heterodoxy at all.

6 thoughts on “Unsystematic liberal theology: God

  1. Victor

    Perhaps we spend a lot of time arguing about the nature of God because religious liberals haven’t come to terms with what’s really important to them? Since there is no orthodoxy, and no prescribed deity, there’s also nothing that binds us together like most religions.

    Maybe there’s a sense that something is missing in our religion…? And perhaps the discussions about God are really a way of exploring “Why am I a part of this religious community? What do I think is of ultimate importance?”

    It’s not clear to me from your post if you think these discussions are useful or not?

  2. Bill Baar

    Two UU Churches since 1986 (with an interlude in a Cong. Church and then a Catholic one) and I’ve yet to have an arguement with any UU about the nature of God.

  3. Dan

    Victor @ 1 — Actually, the post makes several arguments about what does in fact bind us together: a belief in heterodoxy, a belief in the functional ultimacy of humankind, and a belief in the primacy of practical ethics over ontology. It sounds like you don’t agree, and perhaps you could say more about why you don’t think these beliefs bind us together.

    Bill @ 2 — You write: “I’ve yet to have an arguement with any UU about the nature of God.”

    Well, I know the second of the two UU churches you refer to, and thanks to the efforts of Charles Lyttle, Don King, and Lindsay Bates (all of whom had/have long pastorates), people in your UU church understand that humanists and theists are really not that different. Be glad you are in a highly functional UU church!

  4. Victor

    Dan @3 – Perhaps heterodoxy is a widely-held belief among UUs, but my guess is that most UUs haven’t a clue what “heterodoxy” means. So that doesn’t strike me as something that binds us together very much. On your second point – the “functional ultimacy of humankind” – that is undoubtedly a widely-held belief among UUs, but many religions also subscribe to that notion (e.g., “free will” in Catholicism). It’s not something we can claim as uniquely UU.

    Maybe an emphasis on practical ethics (aka “salvation by character”) is something we stress more than other religions, but it’s not something that people talk about very much in church among themselves. Maybe, as a minister, you are just more attuned to guiding people who are struggling with personal or professional ethics questions? (Well maybe the former, but not the latter…)

    Peter Morales claims (in his latest UU World article) that what binds us together as a religion is the supremacy of love. That sounds pretty basic, but I think he’s right. I wish UUs would return to the old “Universalist God is Love” mantra (defining God however you want). Sure, mentioning the “G” word will piss off a lot of people, but without something concrete that ties us all together, I don’t think UUism will thrive in the 21st century. But that’s just my opinion, and I hope I’m wrong.

  5. Dan

    Victor @ 4 — Most people in the pews don’t know (maybe don’t want to know) technical theological terms. The average UU in the pew may not know the word “heterodoxy,” but probably does know “There’s no creed in my church,” or (less accurately but equally heartfelt) “I can believe whatever I want.” Remember, what I’m trying to do is to describe what I actually see out there in Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations — and I see lots of people who are very aware that they come to a UU church precisely because no one is going to force them to believe something they don’t want to believe. “Heterodox” is simply the most precise term I know for this.

    As far as beliefs we share with others: Sure, plenty of other religions believe in “free will” — but there are also plenty of religion that would feel comfortable affirming most if not all of the seven principles we Unitarian Universalists like to claim as unique. And remember too that many, many religious faiths would say that love is supreme in their faith, too. The boundaries between religions are far more porous than many of us like to believe, and sometimes I think most of the boundaries are due, not to theology, but to sociology.

    As for “practical ethics”: I really meant that phrase more in terms of doing social justice work, the practicalities of making the world a better place. What you’re talking about is what I’d call personal ethics or professional ethics, and may be a smallish subset of practical ethics. For what it’s worth, I almost never talk to people about professional ethics, although I have had many conversations about personal ethical choices.

    And again, what I’m trying to do in this series of article is to describe, as best I can, the things that are already tying us together. Our beliefs around “God” are a tiny, tiny part of what bind us together — indeed, I’d say “belief” is a tiny part of what ties us together. See what you think as I continue this series.

  6. Victor

    Dan@5. While “heterodoxy/no-creed/I can believe whatever I want” may be the visible thing that binds us together, I think a better way of stating it would be that we do not force a doctrinal system of beliefs (a UU Nicene Creed) on anyone.

    BUT – AND IMPORTANT – to be a UU, we also believe that everyone is obligated to search for whatever it is that s/he thinks represents Truth//Divinity/Ultimate Reality – i.e., the Sacred in us. Without some recognition that there is a greater Truth that binds us all together (a kinship of souls that share this covenant), UU ceases to be a religion and becomes a virtue-based ethics system at best, or a social club of like-minded affluent adults at worst.

    As such, I believe secular humanism is not compatible with Unitarian Universalism. But religious humanism, on the other hand, which recognizes that there is a greater Truth, is mindful of the covenant we all share to seek the Truth together. While many UUs may self-identify as humanists or atheists, that does not relieve them of the responsibility to seek the Truth for themselves.

    Your blog, incidentally, has been quite useful in helping me to sort through my thoughts about religion and UUism. Thanks!

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