Tag Archives: ecclesiology

Another model for churches, pt. 2

Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1.

The “Eccelsiola in Ecclesia”

I’m not interested in quite the same kind of new monasticism that Alisdair MacIntyre appeared to want; when he wrote After Virtue, MacIntyre called for a new St. Benedict, and within a few years MacIntyre had himself converted to Roman Catholicism. Unlike MacIntyre, I don’t see the answer to our problems coming from Catholicism, and indeed I see much of Roman Catholicism functioning as a destructive kind of imperium itself, rather than standing opposed to (or at least critical of) the imperium that is late capitalism and the postmodern nation-state. And while the barbarians are indeed at the gates, or really they’re beyond the gates and are actually in charge of our cities and nations, the social situation today is so utterly different from that in Benedict’s time that it is impossible for us to remove ourselves from society in the way Benedict’s monks did; or in the way that MacIntyre seems to long for.

Instead, I find inspiration in James Luther Adams’s studies of voluntary associations. Adams, with his deep concern for maintaining human freedom, saw voluntary associations as one of the key constituents of a free society which could maximize human freedom. Adams states that “any healthy democratic society is a multi-group society,” that is, a democracy must allow the existence of multiple groups in order to remain a true democracy. Membership in these groups must remain voluntary: “These [voluntary] associations are, or claim to be, voluntary; they presuppose freedom on the part of the individual to be or not to be a member, to join or withdraw, or to consort with others to form a new [voluntary] association.” (Adams, ed. Beach (1998), 183-184) By way of contrast, Adams identifies involuntary associations such as the family and the “state” (i.e., the nation-state); for nearly all persons, you don’t get to choose whether you belong to these two associations or not, you’re simply born into them. Similarly, in some nations, membership in the state-sponsored church is essentially involuntary. But in a truly voluntary association, you choose whether or not to be a member of it, and you can choose to leave it if you wish. Continue reading

UU emergence: opening a conversation for 2008 and beyond

I know bloggers are supposed to do year-end reviews in their last posts of the waning year, but I’d rather look ahead and anticipate the new year. And what I see emerging right now is that religious liberals are finally taking post-modernism seriously. By “taking seriously” I mean that some religious liberals are doing more than just reading, writing, or preaching about post-modernism — they are actually trying out post-modern ways of doing church. (If you know nothing about this phenomenon, check out the Wikipedia article on emerging church first.)

For the last dozen or more years, some Christian evangelicals and a smaller number of Jews have been seriously engaging with post-modernism. They have been deconstructing and reconstructing the shape of liturgy and worship, experimenting with alt.worship, non-linearity, chanting, contemplative prayer, and integration of non-traditional arts into worship experiences. They have been experimenting with post-modern ecclesiology, trying out old-new forms such as house churches, minyanim. Post-modernism has been emerging in traditional congregational settings in mainline churches as well, where people have been experimenting with medieval and older forms of worship/community such as walking labyrinths, vespers services with candles, etc.

Through all this, religious liberals within Unitarian Universalism have mostly been sticking to the old, tried-and-true models they have been accustomed to for the past couple of generations. Partly this is because Unitarian Universalists already incorporate many aspects of what the emergent church people see as post-modern — we have by our very nature been more willing to accommodate ourselves to the surrounding culture; we have never had a hierarchy try to force us into uniform belief; we have long valued dialogue and alternative points of view; we have insisted on social justice work as integral to who we are since at least the late 1900’s; and we have been open to personal narratives as a way of doing theo/thealogy (as opposed to relying solely on systematic theologies).

Now it’s time for us to take the next steps. It’s time to let go of our dependence on the forty-year-old liturgical forms we got from second-wave feminism; and perhaps it’s time to question our basic Reformation forms of worship and become more aware that our Christian religious roots allow us to tap into a rich array of liturgical resources, dating back thousands of years. It’s time to let go of our over-dependence on hyper-rationality, and allow the possibility of trans-rational (yet not necessarily supernatural) ways of thinking and being.

At an organizational level, I’d suggest we need to move beyond mid-20th C. committee structures for running our congregations (since after all the surrounding culture no longer supports those structures — there are no more “wives” who can volunteer forty hours a week at our churches). I’d like to see us be more open to the possibilities of fully integrating house churches, CUUPS worship groups, and other non-traditional structural forms into our congregations (and while “small group ministry” is a baby step in this direction, we could go much further).

And I think it’s time to seriously question modernist notions that there is one form of Unitarian Universalism that is good for everyone the world over. Since we love them so much, we think that in order to be a True UU you must be able to recite the “seven principles” (which are a product of middle-class First World Unitarian Universalists from the U.S.A.), sing “Spirit of Life” (a second-wave feminist song that may not adequately integrate womanist and mujerista insights), and love the flaming chalice (which is a U.S. Unitarian, not a Universalist, symbol). Grand narratives about the “right way to do things” no longer serve us well.

All this suggests that we Unitarian Universalists need a network equivalent to the Christian Emergent Village, and Jewish Emergent. Notice I said “network” — this is not going to be a top-down hierarchically-structured organization; this is not going to be denominationally-sponsored; this is not even going to be a movement. It’s going to be a conversation of diverse people in diverse settings coming from diverse perspectives — who will come up with diverse solutions to the problems that postmodernism poses to liberal religion and religious liberals.

For the sake of convenience, let’s call this UU Emergence. If you want to participate in the conversation, post something on your blog (if you have one) and tag it “uuemergence”. If you post something on your Web site, include the word “uuemergence” so that search engines can pick it up. (If you don’t have a blog or Web site, then haul your butt over to WordPress.com and start yourself a blog for free!)

And keep your eyes peeled for announcements about a UU Emergence gathering at General Assembly — or even at your next district gathering — so we can all meet face-to-face….

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).

Remembering Maria Harris

In the past fifty years, which North American has had the most radical ideas on church life? My vote is for Maria Harris, feminist scholar and teacher. She’s best known as a religious education sholar, but I think of her as the expert on practical ecclesiology.

Harris is best known for her radical ideas about what churches really teach, as opposed to what classes they offer. Throw out that old notion that religious education is confined to Sunday school classrooms. Harris told us that we start learning about religion the moment we walk into a church building — or as she put it, the whole church is curriculum.

Think about going to a worship service at a congregation you haven’t visited yet. If someone welcomes you at the door, however shyly and awkwardly, you learn that this congregation welcomes the stranger, those who aren’t yet a part of the community. If people give money freely and gladly during the offertory, you learn that this is a generous people. And so on. It works the other way, too. If you want to teach people about generosity, it’s not enough to teach a stewardship class, which Harris would call “explicit curriculum.” We also teach each other about generosity through our actions, which Harris terms “implicit curriculum.” Andf the implicit and explicit curriculums teach different things, everyone’s just going to get confused.

She also talked about the “null curriculum,” what we teach by its absence — a very useful concept to anyone who’s trying to do anti-racism work in a local congregation.

That’s just the beginning of what this quietly radical scholar said. Over the past ten years, her books have been changing my entire approach to religion. Sadly, I just learned she died in February, 2005, after a long illness. You can read a wonderful tribute to her life and work by her former colleagues at Andover Newton Theological School [update: Feb, 2006, tribute removed from Andover Newton Web site], where she began her teaching career.

If you want to get radicalized, try reading these books of hers:

  • Fashion Me a People: Curriculum and the Church, Presbyterian Publishing, 1989;
  • Jubilee Time: Celebrating Women, Spirit, and the Advent of Age, Bantam, 1996
  • Reshaping Religious Education: Conversations on Contemporary Practice, with Gabriel Moran, Presbyterian Publishing, 1998.

Go on. Read one of her books. Radicalize your congregation. I dare you….

Conflict and theology

My favorite branch of theology has become ecclesiology, which I define as the study of how congregations should work ideally, how they do work in reality, and how individual congregations cooperate together. I also contend that too many of us Unitarian Universalists reduce theology to ontological theology, or the study of the nature of ultimate reality (i.e., whether God exists or not, etc.) — which I actually find fairly pointless because no one ever seems to get anywhere with ontological theology. Ecclesiology, on the other hand, is something that you can actually experience, and observe, and experiment with.

More and more, I’ve been reading up on the sociology of congregations to try to gain some insight into how congregations work in reality. I don’t want to oversimplify, but one of the biggest realities in most congregations is conflict — conflict is a fact of life. I found a great resource online for understanding conflict in congregations — a concise summary of “Levels of Conflict” — Alban Institute’s model for conflict management in congregations.

If you haven’t run into this model before, click on that link above and scan the summary. If you have run into the model before, this is the best summary I’ve run across