Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 1

First in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post.

(A) What is “post-Christian”?

At the beginning of his monumental history of American liberal theology, scholar Gary Dorrien (2001, p. xx) briefly addresses the state of liberal theology today, saying: “Today the liberal perspective in theology encompasses a wide spectrum of Christian and, arguably, post-Christian and interreligious positions.” This statement of Dorrien’s raises the interesting question of what a post-Christian or interreligious position might look like, and the even more interesting question of what a post-Christian or interreligious congregation might look like.

I would state with some confidence that post-Christian and interreligious congregations do exist, and have existed for some years now. In 1971, Dana Greeley, who was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1961 to 1969, wrote:

A question asked of Unitarians and Universalists again and again is “Are you Christians?” I have spoken and written many times on this subject, but I have no simple answer to the question. Most Catholic and Protestant Christians, until fairly recently anyway, would have said that we are not Christians. Most Jews would think that we are Christians. When I told one Unitarian friend that Anglicanism’s Dean Stanley referred to Channing as “the morning star of the second reformation,” my friend immediately concluded that Channing was heralding or prophseying a new era, and as Protestantism (resulting from the first Reformation) went beyond Catholicism, so the second Reformation would go beyond Protestantism; a post-Protestant, post-Christian era would begin. Numerous people believe that, or interpret Unitarianism that way. It is a plausible diagnosis, though Channing would never have thought of himself as the forerunner of a non-Christian faith. (For that matter, Jesus would never have thought of himself as the forerunner of a non-Jewish faith.)

In this passage, Greeley begins to develop one plausible definition for what it might mean to have a post-Christian position as a positive, affirmative religious stance. First of all, Greeley’s post-Christian position looks enough like Christianity to be perceived as such by non-Christians; whereas most avowed Christians would deny that the post-Christian is indeed Christian. Today, many Unitarian Universalist congregations could be characterized as post-Christian using this criterion. They retain certain outward aspects of Christianity, such as holding weekly communal meetings on Sunday morning — a distinctively Christian practice. At the same time, they do not fulfill some common criteria for determining whether or not someone is Christian. Speaking from a Unitarian Universalist perspective, Edward A. Cahill (1974) writes: “Christianity calls for the acceptance on faith of a precisely defined belief system,” in contrast to, say Judaism which requires “observance of rigorous social and ritualistic prescripts”; and both these traditions contrast with Unitarian Universalism which requires “the exercise of the free use of reason in an open atmosphere of mutual respect.” Neither Christian nor non-Christian, Unitarian Universalists might best be described as post-Christian.

Greeley’s second point provides a more positive definition of the post-Christian position. More positively, a post-Christian position can be seen as continuing in the tradition of the Protestant Reformation, by taking what is perceived as the best of the Christian tradition while rejecting certain aspects of the tradition which are seen as non-essential. Thus, the post-Christian position retains a connection with Christian tradition, but moves outside some common definitions of what it means to be Christian. We might expand Greeley’s definition to include positions that are derived from the moral, religious, and/or ethical teachings of Christianity but which retain an openness to other moral, religious, and/or ethical teachings.

It’s important to remember that some other definitions emphasize that the post-Christian position has lost what it truly means to be a Christian. For example, the term “post-Christian” may be used in certain Christian circles to indicate persons who lack basic knowledge of the Christian tradition; or “post-Christian” can refer to a society which was perceived as formerly being grounded in Christian values, but which had fallen away from Christianity and into secularism. However, in this essay I am using the term in its positive sense.

Next: What is worship for a post-Christian congregation?

14 thoughts on “Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 1

  1. James Field

    I’m really glad you just took this on. I am working on a sermon on post-Christianity that explains to my home church the ties between us and Transylvania. I have been having a lot of conversations along the lines of “I would much rather say post-Christian than non-Christian.”

  2. Administrator

    James — I have a quickie definition of “post-Christian” here. The definition is a little rough, but there are some interesting comments posted there. (If you want a version to print out, try here.)

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  4. Jeff Wilson

    I have long characterized Unitarian-Universalism as post-Christian (though I’m still on the fence as to whether it is post-Protestant). So it’s interesting to read your remarks here. In Japan I found it wasn’t possible for me to explain in a way intelligible to the Japanese that UUism emerged from Christianity but is not in fact Christian. We look awful Christian to them, even when I was talking to specialist scholars of religion. I’m sure Greeley encountered the same phenomenon in his many contacts with Japanese Buddhists.

    A tiny nitpick about your post, offered solely because perhaps you’re intending to publish this elsewhere and you might want to nip any misunderstandings in the bud: when Greeley says that Catholics and Protestants wouldn’t recognize us as Christians, he is not referring to the modern conjoined denomination. He means that historically these orthodox Christian groups often didn’t consider us Christian even when we considered ourselves fully Christian: Unitarian Christians and Universalist Christians. He’s not talking about the current Unitarian-Universalist denomination which has been heavily infiltrated by Neo-Pagan, Buddhist, and other influences (no aspersion meant by that word “infiltrated”–I’m a UU Buddhist myself) and which no longer makes claims to a Christian identity. You’re probably hip to this distinction but when I read what you’d written that didn’t seem clear to me.

    Can’t wait to see the rest of the series, this is a great topic. This post brought to mind the concluding paragraph of “Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism,” in the final paragraph on “Modernity” by Marilyn Ivy. This may or may not be directly relevant, but I offer it here in case it may spark useful reflection:

    When former Zen teacher Toni Packer asks her students to listen to birds outside the practice hall and imitate their cries, where is Buddhism? When the Dalai Lama says, “My religion is kindness,” where is Buddhism then? Where is Buddhism in the practice of radical attention proffered by contemporary mindfulness meditation teachers? Perhaps we should talk about post-Buddhism instead, an amalgam of therapy, breath awareness, and mindfulness techniques suited for the inhabitants of postmodernity. Yet as in “post”-anything, the post still bears the trace of that which has been superseded: post-Buddhism is still post-Buddhism. And postmodernity is still post-modernity, still shot through with its constitutive contradictions: modernity as the generalized opening of temporal horizons and modernity as specifying a particular time, the time of now, our times. Modernity and its posts will continue to mark and be marked by that difference, and by Buddhism as well.

  5. Jess

    FYI, your second link is broken, Dan.

    I get uncomfortable when people start throwing “post-Christian” around. Viscerally. I think it’s because of the connotation of “post” as “after” when our society as a whole is anything but “after” Christianity. The culture of this country is undeniably one where Judeo-Christianity is the norm, and though there are many people who don’t identify as Christian, the majority of those people still feel as if they are outside the norm rather than defining a new norm.

    I have found in talking to all kinds of people about religion that it is a big, big step for most people to say, “I’m not Christian” if they were brought up that way. And it’s a big, big step for most people to not recoil from people who say they’re not Christian, particularly if they don’t have a “good reason” to not be – i.e. being Jewish, Muslim, or something else “mainstream.”

    So I hesitate greatly in defining Unitarian Universalism as post-Christian, because our faith exists still firmly rooted in a Judeo-Christian based culture. We may draw from post-Christian thought, but I don’t think we’re there yet, and it may take another couple of generations.

  6. Administrator

    Jess — If the term “post-Christian” doesn’t work for you, for goodness sake don’t use it! –and I promise I won’t call you post-Christian behind your back! –and you probably won’t be interested in this series on post-Christian worship! –and I don’t think the surrounding society is post-Christian, I think some congregations are post-Christian!

    I should also emphasize the point that I am aiming this series at anyone who might think of themselves as post-Christian, not just Unitarian Universalists in the U.S. (please note that I’m speaking from within Unitarian Universalism, but not for Unitarian Universalists). For example, I’d like to connect with Ethical Culture congregations (maybe even some UCC churches?) in the North America which might define themselves as post-Christian — and I’m sure there are English-speaking post-Christian congregations in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Ireland, etc, who might have the same self-definition. I think you and I are making very different assumptions about who might want to read this series of posts.

    A couple of side points:– I’m personally not comfortable with the term “Judeo-Christianity,” which I think carries a Christian bias that tries to subsume Judaism into a kind of subset of Christianity. I’d also suggest considering regional variation in religiosity within the United States, particularly the Pacific Rim where in places less than half the population claims any religious affiliation.

  7. Administrator

    Jeff — Thanks for the great quote on “post-Buddhism.” Fascinating. I also love your anecdote about living in Japan. Thanks!

    Your nitpick could be argued either way. Greeley wrote that in 1971, ten years after the Unitarians and Universalists consolodiated; a year or two after he finished his term as the first president of the new denomination. You could argue that the anecdote he recounts reflects back to the time before consolidation — I could argue that the anecdote is colored by his experiences as head of the new denomination. You could argue that things have changed a lot since 1971 and liberal Christians (esp. the UCC) have moved a lot closer to us — I could argue that the UUA still isn’t allowed into the National Council of Churches. In the mean time, I’ll stand by my inclusion of the quote.

  8. Jeff Wilson

    To me the kicker is that Greeley specifically used the words “Unitarians” and “Universalists” and spoke of them in the present tense, but never used “Unitarian-Universalists.” But I agree that the quote makes your point, so the debate is kinda moot.

    On Ethical Culture: I think the best way to characterize it is as post-Jewish. Felix Adler, the founder, was a Jew, and Ethical Culture has always drawn very disproportionately from former Jews. I wonder whether we might call Humanists post-Unitarians, since the movement more or less emerged directly out of Unitarian circles and was a continuation of the same thrust Unitarianism had reached over the course of the 19th century? Just brainstorming here.

    Here’s another personal comment on UUism as post-Christian: when I was growing up UU the Christian kids had no trouble distinguishing me as clearly not a Christian. And as a UU kid I never once thought of myself as Christian–the Christians were other kids in my class, like the Jewish kids, etc.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  9. Administrator

    Jeff — Interesting point about Ethical Culture maybe being “post-Jewish”. However, I would not call humanists anything but humanists. Humanism, to me, is a theological position (or perhaps better to say, philosophical position on religion). But I’m trying to talk about post-Christian as a functional descriptor for congregations where the existence of a deity/deities cannot be assumed; and functional in the sense of congregations which have come out of the Christian tradition.

    Kim and Jeff — Yup — when I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, I didn’t think of myself as a Christian. I think that may be a defining characteristic for post-Christian individuals, that we don’t think of ourselves as Christian or not Christian, it’s just not a category that we pay much attention to. Remember, though, my discussion is really about post-Christian congregations, not about post-Christian individuals (which would require an entirely different essay, one which I’m not prepared to write right now).

  10. PeaceBang

    Given that contemporary UUs have to make a special effort (eg, plan separate Communion services, opportunities for prayer outside the congregation’s Sunday service, etc.) to engage in Christian life and practice, I think it’s fair to say that we’re post-Christian, although I doubt that that term will ever be widely embraced or understood by the typical UU. You’ve provided a good start here, Dan. Thanks.

  11. Administrator

    Peacebang — Thanks for the comment. You’re right — the term “post-Christian” is not going to be widely understood or embraced. Perhaps the hardest thing is that when you say “post-Christian” you suddenly realize that you’re are a lot more Christian than we may feel comfortable with.

    Once again, I feel I should point out that I’m not writing only for Unitarian Universalists, and I am certainly not writing for all Unitarian Universalists — I’m writing for congregations which think of themselves as post-Christian, regardless of what ostensible denomination they may be in.

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  13. Kevin

    We worship the religion of LOVE, as defined by Paul of Tarsus in his first letter to the Corinthians, 13th chapter.

    I think if you asked Jesus of Nazareth himself, he’d agree that he’s not God.

    That was a construct in the 4th century, proposed by Constantine to keep the Roman Empire going. The Spring Fertility holiday became the Birth of God in Human Form. Christianity, as defined by Fundamentalism is just neo-paganism.

    I am an old school Emersonian Transcendentalist and I believe there’s a spark of the divine in us and certain in the sublime.

    But we need to go deeper. We need to go beyond post-modernism, which has held us back. We need to go back to faith, hope, grace, and charity…the greatest of these is LOVE.

    The Democratic process, run amok, is what has kept UUism running in place since the Civil Rights Movement.

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