Tag Archives: Bernard Loomer

How To Feed Five Thousand People

Another in a work-in-progress, stories for liberal religious kids.

Once upon a time, Jesus and his disciples (that is, his closest followers) were trying to take a day off. Jesus had become very popular, and people just wouldn’t leave him alone. Jesus and the disciples wanted a little time away from the crowds that followed them everywhere, so they rented a boat and went to a lonely place, far from any village.

But people figured out where they were going, and by the time Jesus and his friends landed the boat, there were five thousand people waiting there for them. So Jesus started to teach them, and he talked to them for hours.

It started getting late, and the disciples of Jesus pulled him aside and said, “We need to send these people to one of the nearby villages to get some food.”

“No,” said Jesus. “The villages around here are too small to feed five thousand people. You will have to get them something to eat.”

“What do you mean?” his disciples said. “We don’t have enough money to go buy enough bread for all these people, and even if we did, how would we bring it all back here?”

“No, no,” said Jesus. “I don’t want you to go buy bread. Look, how many loaves of bread have we got right here?” Continue reading

Universalism for a new era

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:– Continue reading

Responsibility and gratitude

Recently, I’ve been reading transcripts of seminars that Bernard Loomer gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley. In a seminar on “Surrender,” Loomer said:

“My own feeling is that if you emphasize responsibility too much, you are undervaluing others or the other. Also, you are over-valuing yourself. You are operating with an individualistic conception of the individual, not a social conception of the self. If you have a social sense of the self, you cannot maintain that you are wholly responsible for what you are. You can be responsible within it, but there are limits to which your responsibility extends. I also think that within this attitude of responsibility there is the idea that gratitude beyond a certain point leads to dependence and this is a basic form of weakness. As much as we may not admit this intellectually, many of us feel emotionally that dependence is weakness.”

Unfoldings, Bernard Loomer, 1985.

New book on religious naturalism

Jerry Stone, adjunct faculty at Meadville Lombard Theological School, and retired professor of philosophy at William Rainey Harper College in Chicago, sent this email message today:

“Friends — I have just found out that my new book, Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative is now available from SUNY Press for orders placed in December for a 20% discount plus free shipping (WOW!). I apologize for the late notice. Orders can be placed at sunypress.edu.”

“Discounted price” means it’s US$60 instead of US$75. Big bucks for a book, but those who are interested in process theology (Bernard Loomer apparently looms large in this book), or contemporary humanism, or connections between religion and environmentalism, might want this book. I know my local library isn’t going to get it, so I just ordered my copy. (It’s also available in a downloadable version for US$20.)

If you want to know more about Jerry’s work in this area, try this article from Process Studies, or this article on the Meadville Lombard Web site, or my report on a 2006 lecture by Jerry. For those who might be interested, I’m placing Jerry’s abstract of the book below. Continue reading

Loomer says: Web of life = Kingdom of heaven

When speaking of the “Web of Life,” most Unitarian Universalists today would not make an immediate connection to Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven. But Bernard Loomer, a liberal theologian who taught at the University of Chicago and then at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, did make such a connection. Loomer said:

Jesus has been according many titles. He has been called Savior, Leader, Shepherd, Counselor, Son of God, Messiah. But his intellectual gifts have not been recognized (even when the term “intellectual” has been more carefully defined). It was he who discovered what he called the Kingdon of God — what I call the Web of Life — surely one of the great intellectual and religious ideas of the western world.

As I define it, the web is the world conceived of as an idefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality. This includes human and non-human, the organic and inorganic levels of life and existence.

Jesus discovered the reality of the Web. He began his public ministry by announcing its presence and its fuller exemplification (the “coming kingdom”)…. [Unfoldings: Conversations from the Sunday morning seminars of Bernie Loomer, 1985, First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, pp. 1-2]

Thus Loomer connects the ecological concept of the Web of Life with the theological concept of the Kingdom of Heaven:– intellectually and religiously speaking, the two concepts are the same thing. And the moral and ethical challenges facing us have to do, not with getting into heaven in the future, but with a “fuller exemplification” of the Kingdom here and now.

However, says Loomer, conventional Christian theology has lost this intellectual insight of Jesus, partly by de-emphasizing the Synoptic Gospels (those three books that actually tell of Jesus’s life) in favor of later writings:

When you come to the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul something has changed. In the Synoptics, Jesus is not the central reality. The Kingdom is the central reality. He [Jesus] describes this reality, but the Kingdom does not exist for his sake. He serves the Kingdom and draws his power from it The Kingdom was not created because Jesus was of supernatural origin. The Kingdom was never created. The discovery was that the Kingdom is a given of life itself. It was not created by Jesus. It was not created at all. It is simply inherent in life itself. Its actuality is simultaneous with existence. [Unfoldings, p. 2]

At an ontological level, I believe what Loomer is trying to tell us is that the Web of Life, the Kingdom of Heaven, and God are identical in this way — each of these was not created, but always is and was and shall be. While the dogmatic humanists and the dogmatic liberal Christians among us may find this distasteful for their various reasons, I find this to be a very useful theological point, with profound moral and ethical implications. Loomer goes on to say:

Sin is a distortion of our relations to God and to each other. Forgiveness is a restoration to those relationships. In sinful acts we act against the Web of Life. In seeking repentance we open ourselves to the forgiveness that is already there, as a fundamental condition of life. We make ourselves accessible to it, or it accessible to us. We are related to each other through the Web. Those others have free choice as to whether they will accept our forgiveness or not. In all cases we are trapped with an inescapable web of connectedness. [Unfoldings, p.3]

Loomer goes on to add that it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe the Web of Life is impersonal, or whether you believe it is personal:– you still have to face up to the reality of the need for forgiveness. Furthermore, as social beings we humans also exist within a “social web” and thus forgiveness requires “at least one other.”

Loomer’s remarks interest me for two reasons. First, while many of us talk about the Web of Life, there’s not enough serious reflection on the moral implications of the Web (and saying something like “The Web of Life means we have to care for the planet Earth” is not a serious reflection, it is merely trite). Second, while I have sensed a strong connection between Jesus and ecological theology, Loomer articulates it better than I have heard it articulated elsewhere.

Religious Naturalism

One of the papers that’s on my summer reading list is “Religious Naturalism in a Unitarian Universalist Context,” a paper presented at General Assembly under the auspices of Collegium, June 23, 2006, by Jerome A. Stone [full text]. Here’s a short critical summary of my reading:–

“Naturalism,” according to Jerry Stone, is a “set of beliefs and attitudes that focuses on this world.” Stone says that naturalism rules out an “ontologically distinct and superior realm.” Religious naturalism, of course, concerns the religious aspects of this world “which can be appreciated within a naturalistic framework.” [p. 2]

Religious naturalism is of particular interest to Unitarian Universalists for two reasons. First, there are many people associated with Unitarianism or Unitarian Universalism who can be considered religious naturalists, including: Henry David Thoreau (raised Unitarian), Henry Nelson Weiman (theologian who joined a UU fellowship), Frederick May Eliot (president of the AUA), Stone himself, and others.

Secondly, religious naturalism is a theological position that encompasses both those who include the concept of God, and those who don’t, in their theologies. Many people think that if you believe in God you can’t find common theological ground with those who don’t spend time thinking about God, but religious naturalism proves this need not be so.

Stone identifies three basic types of religious naturalists, and his typology has to do with how different religious naturalists deal with the concept of God.

(1) The first type includes people like Henry Nelson Weiman, and they conceive of God as creative process within the world. Weiman was committed to common sense empirical inquiry and to scientific method. In the context of this kind of inquiry, Weiman wondered what allowed human beings to escape form evil (which we occasionally do manage to do). Weimen felt that individual human beings were not always capable of extricating themselves from evil, but that there was a transformative principle that could and did pull us out of evil. This he called “creative interchange” in his book The Source of Human Good; this he was willing to call by the name “God.”

(2) The second type of religious naturalist considers God to be the totality of the world, considered religiously. Stone gives Bernard Loomer as an example of this type of religious naturalist. In a 1987 essay, Loomer wrote: “If the one world, the experienceable world with its possibilities, is all the reality accessible to us, …then it follows that the being of God must be identified in some sense with the being of the world and its creatures.” Loomer, too, is committed to empirical inquiry as opposed to metaphysical speculation.

Stone believes Loomer coined the phrases “power with” and “power over” (the second phrase implies a relationship wherein one party has the power and uses it to dominate another party; the first phrase implies a relationship where the party with the power shares it with others, thus avoiding domination). Loomer also refers to an inter-connected or interdependent web of existence, and Loomer identifies this interdependent web with the concept of God. Thus, Loomer appears to be somewhat interested in creating a liberative theology.

(3) A third type of religious naturalism sees no need to use the concept or terminology of God. Stone himself is an example of this third type. He writes:

I hold that many events have what could be called a sacred aspect. I am not talking about a being, a separate mind or spirit. I am saying that some things, like justice and human dignity, and the creativity of the natural world, are sacred. This vision is very pluralistic. What degree of unity there is to this plurality I am reverently reluctant to say.

Stone is willing to allow for transcendence, but only relative transcendence. In other words, there isn’t anything that is absolutely transcendent, but in certain situations there are things that surely do feel transcendent. Stone says that if he were forced to choose between humanism and theism, he’d reluctantly choose humanism; but really he’s somewhere in between the two positions. Indeed, he has what he calls a “minimal definition of God” which he uses in ordinary conversation, when leading worship (he’s in fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister), and when talking with other “religious voices.” His minimal definition is as follows: “God is the sum total of the ecosystem, community and person empowering and demanding interactions in the universe.”

In order for me to be interested in a new theological position, I have to be able to understand how it will contribute to liberation. In this short paper, Stone does not adequately go into how religious naturalism might be applied to liberation (perhaps that will be a part of his book-in-process). But Bernard Loomer’s religious naturalism has definite implications for liberation; and Stone’s own religious naturalism could have as well. As attractive as I find religious naturalism to be, I can’t call myself a religious naturalist until I know more about how it will contribute to liberation.