Tag Archives: feminist theology

Lecture 2: Some critiques of humanism

Second lecture in a class on humanism.

If we’re going to do a serious study of humanism, one of the things we have to do is take seriously any serious critiques of humanism. What I’d like to do is go through and give you six possible critiques of humanism, critiques that I consider interesting and worthy of thoughtful consideration. I’m not going to resolve these critiques for you; I’m just going to lay out seven arguments against humanism, and let you do with them what you will.


(1) Critique number one is the critique that humanism is no comfort to persons in a time of crisis. In its crudest aspect, this critique takes the form of saying, Well if you’re a humanist and you get cancer, to whom can you pray? But do not dismiss this critique on the basis of that crude critique.

Jean-Paul Sartre raises this issue in a subplot in his short story “The Wall.” The protagonist in this story was fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He is captured, sentenced to be executed, and spends his last night in a cell with some others who have also been sentenced to death. The protagonist, who has no apparent belief in God, watches as one of the other condemned prisoners who believes in God gives way to fear. Sartre’s protagonist faces his impending death with courage, and even finds himself relishing his last moments of living, as opposed to the believer who gives way to fear. But is this going to be convincing for most people?

This issue has been framed in other ways. Continue reading

Spirituality development in youth

This morning, I was a guest in an online course on youth ministry, taught by Megan Dowdell and Betty-Jeane Rueters-Ward, and offered through Starr King School for the Ministry. Megan and Betty-Jeane invited Lane Campbell and me to participate in a conference call, and answer a few questions about spiritual development for teenagers. I took notes on what I said, and below you’ll find my re-creation of my answers to Megan’s questions on spiritual development.

Question 1: How is spiritual development for youth different than for adults or children?

My answer: If we’re going to answer this question within the context of a religious community, I want to begin with theology. We have to go back to theological anthropology, and ask ourselves: What is the nature of human beings?

Within my own religious upbringing — my family has been Unitarian for generations, and we’re now Unitarian Universalists — I always heard a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw a divine spark within every human being, no matter what age. If the nature of human beings is that they have have some divine spark within them, then we are probably going to say that this divine spark doesn’t develop at all. I’d pretty much agree with Emerson on this point, although I’d probably argue with him about the nature of the divine spark. So I’m not convinced there’s much spiritual difference across ages; certainly, from the standpoint of theological anthropology, there’s no real difference between teenagers and adults. Continue reading

Unitarian Universalist Humanism: Introductory lecture

Introductory lecture delivered tonight, in a course in UU humanism:

In this introductory lecture, I’m going to attempt to outline Unitarian Universalist humanism for you. My primary approach in this lecture is going to be based on an approach used by the humanist theologian Anthony Pinn in his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience. After pointing out the inadequacies of theological traditions which merely point towards some ultimate revelation, something beyond what we see and hear and experience in this life, Pinn describes his approach as follows:

“I want to suggest that the task of … constructive theologies … is more in line with [Gordon] Kaufman’s ‘third-order theology’ and Charles Long’s reflections upon the theology of the opqaue. That is to say, theology is deliberate or self-conscious human construction focused upon uncovering and exploring the meaning and structures of religious experience within a larger body of cultural production. It is, by nature, comparative in a way that does not seek to denounce or destructively handle other traditions.”

I find Pinn’s approach to theology to be incredibly useful for at least four reasons. Continue reading

Happy 90th birthday, 19th Amendment!

Yesterday marked the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. Ninety years is a relatively short period of time: within memory of people I know, women did not have the right to vote in federal elections.

Unfortunately, by the time that women were gaining the right to vote, women ministers were finding it nearly impossible to find settlements in Unitarian or Universalist churches. There had been a period of a few decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a few dozen women would get settlements in our churches. But by 1920, that period was over. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Unitarian Universalists began ordaining — and settling — women in significant numbers once again.

Maybe we’ve done better in politics than we’ve done in religion. In politics, the fact that we have powerful female politicians on both the left — Nancy Pelosi is a liberal powerhouse — and on the far right — Sarah Palin is a central figure of the Tea Party — is remarkable. In religion, however, most religious groups do not have gender equality among their clergy or equivalent leaders; many religious groups do not allow women to even serve as clergy at all. Sure, Unitarian Universalists have more women ministers than male ministers, but we constitute a tiny fraction of the U.S. population.

In her preface to a 1992 reprinting of Sexism and God-Talk, Rosemary Radford Reuther wrote: “The starting point for feminist theology, perhaps all theology, is ‘cognitive dissidence.’ What is is not what ought to be. Not only that, but what we have been told ought to be is not always what ought to be” [SCM Press: London, p. xix].

The feminist revolution is not even complete within Unitarian Universalism: men still dominate the highest-paying ministry jobs. In many other religious traditions, the feminist revolution has barely begun. Sure, I’m ready to celebrate the 19th Amendment: break out the cake and cookies! And while we’re celebrating that political achievement, let’s figure out how we can do a little cognitive dissidence in religion. Maybe we can figure out how to reach out to feminists in other religious traditions, to offer support if they need it, to learn from them so we can keep moving forward in our own feminist revolution, and perhaps to make progress towards a world where all religions recognize the equality of women and men.

The legal relationship between same-sex marriage and gender equality

The headline from today’s San Francisco Chronicle says it all: “Unconstitutional: Same-sex marriage backers rejoice as federal judge strikes down Prop. 8”. I’ve been reading over parts of the judge’s ruling, available as a PDF file on the Web site of the San Jose Mercury News. I was particularly struck by the judge’s reasoning that by outlawing same-sex marriage, Prop. 8 discriminates, not only on the basis of sexual orientation, but also on the basis of gender:

Plaintiffs challenge Proposition 8 as violating the Equal Protection Clause [of the 14th amendment] because Proposition 8 discriminates both on the basis of sex and on the basis of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation discrimination can take the form of sex discrimination. Here, for example, Perry is prohibited from marrying Stier, a woman, because Perry is a woman. If Perry were a man, Proposition 8 would not prohibit the marriage. Thus, Proposition 8 operates to restrict Perry’s choice of marital partner because of her sex. But Proposition 8 also operates to restrict Perry’s choice of marital partner because of her sexual orientation; her desire to marry another woman arises only because she is a lesbian. [p. 119]

The judge also pointed out that, in the past, marriage had been a “male-dominated institution.” Then as gender equality became the law of the land, marriage had to change such that both partners became equals: Continue reading

Associationism, part three

Part One of this four-part series

Merger and its aftermath

Upon the merger (the legal term was “consolidation”) of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, two different forms of associationism had to merge. I find it significant that some of the old Universalist state conventions determinedly maintained their separate corporate identity; such a thing was not practically possible in more centralized Unitarian form of associationism. This also reveals something of the associational rigidity that the Universalists had fallen into; they could not let go of old associational structures; and this does not compare well with the associational innovation of the Unitarians at that time.

The merger of the two forms of associationism proved awkward at best. The Universalists felt like they were being taken over, and from an asosciational point of view that was true. The Unitarians, for their part, forgot to keep on innovating. Dana Greeley, the Unitarian who took over the presidency of the new Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), acted as if the 1950s were never going to end: he ignored signs that economic growth in the United States was slowing, and he was unable to deal effectively with the changes in society that confronted him, most notably when the Black Power movement came to the UUA. The 1970s were a period of serious decline in the UUA, as the 1950s associational models proved incapable of handling the new society that was emerging: it was not longer enough to start more fellowships and centralize curriculum development; something else had to change.

The first great innovation in the newly-formed Unitarian Universalist Association was second-wave feminism. Continue reading

Mary Daly is dead

The news is gradually filtering out that Mary Daly (1928-2010) died yesterday. I heard the news first on Facebook via Amy. Mary E. Hunt has sent out the following announcement, which has been disseminated via iRobyn and other blogs:

With a heavy heart, yet grateful beyond words for her life and work, I report that Mary Daly died this morning, January 3, 2010 in Massachusetts. She had been in poor health for the last two years.

Her contributions to feminist theology, philosophy, and theory were many, unique, and if I may say so, world-changing. She created intellectual space; she set the bar high….

Mary E. Hunt — Hoechenschwand, Germany

With all due credit to all the other women doing feminist theology during the 1960s, Mary Daly was indeed world-changing. Beyond God the Father, her greatest work, is still a radical book. For people in my generation, it’s easy to forget how radical she was and is: we’re too aware of the inadequacy of her responses to womanist and third-wave feminist theologians; we’re too critical of her binary, either-or, definitions of gender. But Mary Daly’s work is part of our intellectual foundations — in many ways, we would not be who we are if it were not for her.

Daly was a voice for liberation. Maybe I disagree with the details of what she says, but basically she’s right: women have historically been oppressed by religion, they continue to be oppressed by religion, and that oppression has to end, whatever the cost. That oppression continues within Unitarian Universalism: last I heard our women ministers still earned less, on average, than our male ministers; sexual misconduct by male ministers all too often gets passed over lightly; better than 90% of our religious educators are women (’cause, you know, raising children is women’s work) and most of our religious educators receive inadequate pay.

I would feel better about Daly’s death and the rest of this if the rising generations were more radical in their feminism, but they are not. We live in a world where feminism is either in retreat, or has been co-opted by consumer capitalism merely in order to expand the pool of consumers to be exploited. When you remove their equality as consumers, in many ways women and girls are less equal today than they were 20 years ago.

Mary Daly, we’re going to miss you.

2009 in review: Liberal religion in the news

In 2009, the mainline Christian denominations continued to be drawn into conflicts around wedge issues such as same-sex marriage and ordination of women. These conflicts over wedge issues may be exacerbated by religious conservative activists, including the misnamed “Institute on Religion and Democracy” (IRD), and overseas groups such as the conservative Anglican bishops in Africa who continue to intervene in the U.S. Episcopal Church. Indeed, according to some observers, groupslike the IRD use wedge issues to deliberately sabotage mainline and liberal Christian denominations.

2009 saw growing rifts in the Episcopal Church, and ongoing conflict in the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), etc. I was unable to determine if the United Church of Christ continued to face the problem of conservative individuals funded by outside groups taking over local congregations. Back in 2006, in an interview with Dan Wakefield, theologian Harvey Cox said, “The energy of mainline Protestant churches has been absorbed by the battles over abortion, and over gay rights and gay marriage that’s divided entire denominations in recent years. There’s nothing left over for the kind of battles that were fought in the past for peace and justice in the nation and the world.” (The Hijacking of Jesus, p. 102) Three years later, the situation has not changed.

Unitarian Universalism, closely related as we are theologically and historically to the mainline churches, has been affected in different ways by the continuing conflicts over wedge issues. Because we embrace same-sex marriage, women’s right to choice, and ordination of women, Unitarian Universalism has become marginal in U.S. political culture; it is difficult to believe that any Unitarian Universalist could become president of the United States. We Unitarian Universalists seem to have embraced our politically marginal status to the point where many Unitarian Universalists automatically stake out politically liberal positions — without ever determining if political liberalism and the Democratic party can be equated with religious liberalism. This peculiar politico-religious orthodoxy continued to hamper open conversations about, and honest critiques of: second-wave feminist theology; identity politics; and the way we are beholden to consumer capitalism. Yet second-wave feminism primarily benefits upper middle class white women; identity politics forces the kind of binary identity choices that we say we deplore in theology; and consumer capitalism directly contradicts several of those “seven principles” that we tout.

In another part of the region where liberal religion and politics intersect, the religious right has been doing a very good job or helping liberal Christians (and, to the extent they bother with us, helping Unitarian Universalists) stay on the margins. A very public example of this marginalization is Barack Obama. Religious conservatives forced Obama to repudiate his liberal Christian UCC church during the campaign, and since then the Obama family has not settled on a regular church to attend — I suspect that the Obamas can’t stand the theology of the politically acceptable churches, while Barack Obama can’t stand the political consequences of attending another UCC church, or any liberal Christian church for that matter. The situation has gotten bad enough that, to the best of my knowledge, the Obamas did not attend church on Christmas eve. (A BBC commentator has suggested that the Obamas would best fit in with Florida Street Friends Meeting [Quaker] in D.C., and I suspect he’s right — but such a church choice would be political suicide.) Obama is but one prominent example of the marginalization of liberal Christianity in U.S. political life.

As a religious educator, I can’t help adding that this is not good for the religious education of the Obama children. Their children need exposure to a living religious community in addition to whatever home-based religious education the Obamas may provide. Michelle, forget the political cost to Barack — take the kids to Florida Street Meeting!


One can only hope that in 2010 we religious liberals — especially we Unitarian Universalists — learn to start from liberal theology, rather than starting from liberal politics. Instead of toeing the politically liberal party line, let’s clearly articulate the religiously liberal party line: that individual salvation is not good enough because we have to save the whole world; that it’s most important to help those who are poor, those who are suffering, and those who have been pushed to the margins of society; that women are just as good as men; that consumer capitalism treats human beings as mere consumers, and falsely states that the highest good in life is buying more stuff. From a pragmatic point of view, maybe we’ll be doing many of the same things — but we’ll have religious, not political, reasons for doing them.

And if we can do that, we’ll really be newsworthy.

Notes on our theological boundaries

These notes are addressed to my fellow Unitarian Universalists, although they may be of some interest to other liberal religious persons. I’ve been thinking about this question: Where do we draw our theological boundaries? Having some sense of where our boundaries are will help us to answer another questions: whom do we keep out, and whom should we be seeking out to welcome in? Mind you, these are just notes — which means your thoughts, reactions, and comments will be most welcome. Continue reading