Tag Archives: feminist theology

Where we’re coming from?

Theology comes from the week-to-week actions of a worshipping community far more than it comes from academia. Attend some Unitarian Universalist worship services and listen what is being preached, what is being sung, and what is being prayed, and you’ll learn more about Unitarian Universalist theology than if you read books by academic theologians like Thandeka and Paul Rasor. This isn’t meant as a put-down of academic theologians, it’s simply what I feel is true.

So when I read in our denominational magazine that one of our “most beloved hymns” is a song by Carolyn McDade called “Spirit of Life,” that makes me think that if I listen to that hymn, I’ll learn something about where mainstream Unitarian Universalist theology is these days.

“Spirit of Life,” says the hymn, “come unto me.” It’s a hymn written in 1981, one of the peak years of the feminist revolution, when women were really finding their voice and finding their power — the hymn is calling the power of the divine into women who had been too long ignored by Western religion. Or we could reframe that same idea with the insights of third wave feminism: “Spirit of Life” was written when second wave feminism was at its peak, when affluent white college-educated middle-class women were claiming additional power and influence for themselves by putting and end to discrimination against affluent white college-educated middle-class women — but the hymn assumes individuals will have a certain level of power and influence, and includes a cultural bias towards individualism. So if “Spirit of Life” is one of the most popular Unitarian Universalist hymns, we could probably conclude that the feminist theology we have hasn’t been particularly good at including women of color and working-class women.

(However, don’t take this a commentary on Carolyn McDade’s theology. Her earlier hymn, “We’ll Build a Land” from 1979, is far less individualistic, calling for solidarity with all persons with phrases like, “Come build a land where sisters and brothers/ anointed by God may then create peace/ where justice shall roll down like waters….”)

Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 4

Fourth in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post. Back to the first post in this series.

(C) Private devotions and small group worship in a post-Christian congregation, continued

(C.2) Small groups

Small group worship occupies a middle ground between private devotions and common worship. At its best, small group worship offers a continuing opportunity for renewal and reform. James Luther Adams (1976, p. 85) talks about this aspect of small groups when he describes the ecclesiola in ecclesia as a possibility for ongoing reform of voluntary associations:

In the modern period the ecclesiola has been the small group of firm dedication that sometimes promotes the disciplines of the inner life, sometimes bends its energies to sensitize the church afflicted with ecclesiastical somnolence, sometimes cooperates with members of the latent church in the world to bring about reform in government or school or industry, or even to call for radical structural transformation.

Small group worship can take on this positive, reforming aspect in post-Christian congregations. Feminist worship groups in the second wave of feminism (1960’s and 1970’s) may serve as an example of small groups helping to sensitize larger congregations to the possibility of ecclesiastical somnolence. Many such feminist worship groups worked on developing new worship language and new forms of worship that allowed men and women to be true equals (the wide-spread “Water Communion” in Unitarian Universalist congregations in fact originated with a small feminist worship group). Certain Neo-Pagan groups within a larger Unitarian Universalist congregation have operated in this way, challenging liturgical and theological assumptions of the congregation, particularly in the areas of feminism and environmentalism, while remaining fully connected with it. Outside Unitarian Universalism, we might consider the revolutionary role assigned to small groups (base communities) by practitioners of liberation theology.

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Seven principles

I don’t usually put sermons on the blog (I feel they’re too long for the blog format, and besides sermons are for listening to, not reading). But since I have been sounding off recently about the “seven principles” of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and since today’s sermon was in effect a more sustained and more systematic critique of the “seven principles,” I thought it would be fun to share this sermon with readers who don’t live in New Bedford. Hope this provokes some critical discussion.


The first reading this morning comes from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the association of which First Unitarian is a member congregation. While excerpts from bylaws are not usually read as a part of a worship service, this particular piece of bylaws has taken on the status of an affirmation of faith among many Unitarian Universalists. This is section C-2.1, titled Principles.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The second reading is another excerpt from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which immediately follows the first excerpt we heard. Although rarely quoted, personally I consider these of equal importance to the more familiar principles.

Section C-2.2. Purposes: …The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.

Section C-2.3. Non-discrimination: The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief: Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

Sermon: “Seven Principles”

As you may or may not know, one widely-used statement of faith among Unitarian Universalists is commonly called “the seven principles.” We heard these “seven principles” in the first reading this morning, and as commonly used they are:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

It’s an admirable statement of faith. And unusual, for that matter. As I said when I introduced that first reading, this statement is an excerpt from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. How many religions do you know of that use an excerpt from their bylaws as a statement of faith? As someone who is fascinated by institutional structures — I suppose you could call me a “bylaws geek” — I am tickled to think that many Unitarian Universalists use an excerpt from a set of bylaws as a statement of faith. What better way to merge the personal and the institutional, linking the individual with the communal.

But even though these seven principles may make an admirable statement of faith, they cannot serve as a final statement of faith among us. One of the grounding principles of Unitarian Universalism is that we have no final answers when it comes to religion. Revelation is not sealed, that is, there is plenty more revelation to come before we’re done. Unitarians and Universalists have revised our statements of faith many times over the years; I expect that we shall revise our current statement of faith before too many years have gone by.

Another way of saying this is that we are a critical, argumentative people. And we like it that way. We thrive on disagreement, because we know that disagreement can lead to constructive dialogue, and from that constructive dialogue we might get just a little closer to truth. In fact, the story of the how the seven principles came into being is indeed a story of constructive dialogue that led us closer to truth.

What happened was this:

Back in 1961, when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated together, we had to write new bylaws for our new Unitarian Universalist Association. I am too young to remember any of this, but as I understand it the debate about the principles grew so contentious that it almost put a stop to consolidation. I have been told that the debate went on all day and all night. Somehow, compromises were reached, and a set of six principles was enshrined in the bylaws of the new Unitarian Universalist Association. As a child, I vaguely remember seeing a copy of those principles framed and hung on the wall of my childhood church somewhere. They actually don’t sound all that much different from our current seven principles — but as I read them, see if you can pick out the glaring differences:

1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship; 2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man; 3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships; 4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace; 5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion; 6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.

You probably noticed the the glaring differences between these old principles, and the current pricniples:– the old useage of the word “men” to mean all human beings, and the old useage of the word “brotherhood” to mean common humanity. Back in 1961, though, no one gave a second thought to sexist language like that.

Within a few years, by the late 1960’s, feminism began to creep into Unitarian Universalist congregations. Many women, and not a few men, began to realize that Western religion pretty much left women out of the religious picture. By the 1970’s, groups of women (with a few men) had gathered in various Unitarian Universalist congregations to see whether Unitarian Universalism suffered from sexist bias. The widespread conclusion was that yes, it did. The next question was: What shall we do about it?

One of the women who had been investigating gender bias in religion was Lucile Shuck Longview, a member of the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington center, Massachusetts. Lucile Longview decided that there should be a resolution introduced at General Assembly, the annual gathering and business meeting of Unitarian Universalists. She drafted a resolution that she called the “Women and Religion” resolution. Her resolution said in part:

WHEREAS, a principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to ‘affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships’; and, WHEREAS, some models of human relationships arising from religious myths, historical materials, and other teachings still create and perpetuate attitudes that cause women everywhere to be overlooked and undervalued; and WHEREAS, children, youth and adults internalize and act on these cultural models, thereby tending to limit their sense of self-worth and dignity;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the 1977 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association calls upon all Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully their own religious beliefs and the extent to which these beliefs influence sex-role stereotypes within their own families; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That the General Assembly urges the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association to encourage the Unitarian Universalist Association… to make every effort to: (a) put traditional assumptions and language in perspective, and (b) avoid sexist assumptions and language in the future.

That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. It may be hard for us to realize it now, but in 1977 this was a pretty radical resolution. And the part that called on Unitarian Universalists to “avoid sexist assumptions and language” would prove to be quite radical, for it would cause us to revise our 1961 statement of principles.

Years later, Lucile Longview recalled how the Women and Religion resolution came to be passed at the 1977 General Assembly. She wrote:

I conceived of and wrote the resolution and sent it to 15 associates around the continent, soliciting feedback. They encouraged me to proceed, and offered suggestions. At First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, six other laywomen, one layman, and I sent personal letters to members of churches, with copies of the petition to place the resolution on the agenda of the 1977 General Assembly. We received more than twice the requisite 250 signatures. The Joseph Priestley District submitted the resolution directly, with some text revisions. Both versions were placed on the GA Final Agenda. We lobbied friends, GA delegates, and presidential candidates to support the District’s version, which passed unanimously.

In other words, the Women and Religion resolution was the result of non-hierarchical, grassroots effort. And it passed unanimously. That contentious, argumentative Unitarian Universalists could pass anything unanimously indicates to me that we saw a new truth in the statement that we needed to remove sexist attitudes from our religious stories and myths.

Of course, one of the first places to look for sexist language was in the six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. After the passage of the Women and Religion resolution, who could help noticing that the six principles referred to men but not to women? And so a movement arose to revise the six principles.

It took seven long years to revise the six principles into something that nearly all Unitarian Universalist congregations could agree on — seven long years, and lots of arguing. A seventh principle, respect for the Earth as sacred, was added as well, based on the emerging feminist idea that human beings are not disembodied beings and cannot be separated from the world around them. An initial draft of the revised principles was brought to General Assembly, but it was criticized for completely leaving out the word “God,” which many people felt was tantamount to pushing theists and Christians (many of whom were strong feminists) out of Unitarian Universalism. Finally, in 1981 the General Assembly formed a committee to reach out to every Unitarian Universalist congregation for suggestions and comments and criticisms.

This grassroots effort paid off:– in 1984 and 1985, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association finally approved a new improved statement of principles, the one which you heard in the first reading this morning. The vote to approve these new principles was not quite unanimous, but it was pretty close to being so.

So here we are, 21 years later. We have this great set of principles. Many people feel deep affection for our statement of principles. Quite a few teenagers and young adults have grown up in our churches having been taught those seven principles — some churches even have their children memorize the simplified version of the seven principles that we read together as a responsive reading this morning. Everyone seems happy with the seven principles.

There’s a provision of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association that requires us to review the principles at least every fifteen years, and make any revisions that might be necessary. We are just beginning that review (six years late, which means we’re in violation of our own bylaws, but those things happen). Many people are saying that this only needs to be a cursory review;– for after all we’re all pretty happy with the seven principles. Right?

Well, not quite everyone. After all, we are an argumentative people.

No, we’re not all happy with the seven principles as they now stand. A small number of people — and I count myself as one of them — feels that it’s time for the principles and purposes to be revised. I personally would like to see a substantial revision. I personally am fairly unhappy with the current principles. To tell you why, I have to tell you a little story about the evolution of feminism.

As I told you, the principles as we now have them grew out of the feminist movement of the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. We can call that feminist movement “second wave feminism.” “First wave feminism” was the feminist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a movement that perhaps reached its high point in legal reforms like women winning the right to vote. Within Unitarianism and Universalism, first wave feminism resulted in the first ordinations of women as ministers.

Second wave feminism came about when middle class white women realized that although they had won the right to vote, and a few other legal rights, sexism was still rampant and widespread in our society. Second wave feminism pointed out, for example, that women earned less than men for the same work, and also pointed out how few women served prominent political offices or other positions of power. Within Unitarian Universalism, second wave feminism led to the eventual result that half our ministers are now women, that women now fill some of our most prominent pulpits, and that the last five moderators of the Unitarian Universalist Association have been women.

Then along came third wave feminism. Thoughtful women of color began to realize that second wave feminism did not adequately represent the particular circumstances of women who didn’t happen to be white. Thoughtful working-class women began to realize that second wave feminism assumed the kind of access to money and influence that many working class people, both men and women, just didn’t have. These women, and some like-minded men, began to ask why it was that middle-class white women seemed to be making so much more progress towards equality than women of color and working class women. To put it bluntly, second wave feminism did not deliver the same equality to all women.

Many third wave feminists are younger women who came of age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and some of them feel as though they are supposed to be “dutiful daughters” who follow the old second wave feminism without question — but then they ask, isn’t that exactly the kind of hierarchical thinking that the second wave feminists were trying to break away from? An increasing number of women who call themselves feminists are not Westerners, and they point out that second wave feminism almost requires a woman to adopt Western ways of doing things. Third wave feminism has led to a deeper questioning of second wave feminism.

Religion has become something of a bone of contention among North American feminists, too. Many of the second wave feminists rejected all religion as inherently demeaning to women, while other second wave feminists rejected Western Christianity or Judaism in favor of Paganism. But now younger women are coming along who are questioning the ways in which second wave feminism has rejected religion. Some of them are saying: You know what, I can believe in God and still be a feminist.

As you can see, lots of people are having lots of arguments about feminism these days. Loving to argue as much as we do, those arguments have even crept into Unitarian Universalism. The questions that third wave feminists have posed have caused people like me to question how we Unitarian Universalists do feminism. As a result, a few of us have begun to question those wonderful seven principles, principles which emerged from the insights of second wave feminism.

Speaking for myself, in the past few years I have grown unhappy with the seven principles. [At this point, someone raised to hand, wanting to say something, but I asked for us to save the arguments until after the worship service was over.] …To say that I affirm “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” sounds very fine indeed. Of course I want to be treated with justice, equity, and compassion. But when I remember how many women have to live with domestic violence, I’m not sure those fine-sounding words are quite strong enough. When I remember that far more women and children live below the poverty line than men, particularly women of color, I find I really want a stronger statement of something which I can affirm.

In the second reading this morning, you heard what might be just such a stronger statement. The second reading this morning gave the rest of the principles and purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the parts that are rarely quoted, the parts that don’t appear on the little wallet cards we have at the back of the church. I am particularly fond of this statement: “The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin….”

Those of you who come here regularly on Sunday mornings have probably noticed that the welcoming words that we hear each week at the beginning of the worship service include a similar statement:

Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology.

Isn’t this a stronger statement than to say that we long for some abstract notion of justice, equity, and compassion? Isn’t this a stronger statement than to say merely that we value the inherent worth and dignity of every person? The seven principles are easy to affirm if you’ve already got some measure of justice, equity, and compassion in your life, if you’re already treated with inherent worth and dignity. But I’d rather affirm that I have a special responsibility to value the differences between people; and I’d rather be reminded of quite specific differences that I should be paying attention to;– those differences that historically have resulted in certain groups of people being pushed to the margins of power and influence; that have resulted in people being pushed to the margins of religion.

As I say, this is a debate that is going on right now in Unitarian Universalist circles. Within a couple of years, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association will be asked either to affirm the principles and purposes as they now stand, or to make changes. You’ve heard my opinion — I think I’d like to see some changes, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what those changes might be. You probably have your own opinion. Perhaps you would prefer that our principles and purposes remain as they are now. Perhaps you have some good ideas for specific changes that should be made. Perhaps you will be the next Lucile Shuck Longview, and start a new grassroots effort that will change Unitarian Universalism for the better.

Whatever your personal opinion, our shared faith of Unitarian Universalism requires all of us to talk these things over; we are required to remain in critical dialogue with each other and with our shared statement of faith. Ours is not a religion for complacent people. We can’t just come and sit in church once a week for an hour, and say that is the extent of our religion. The search for truth and goodness draws us ever onwards, into deeper and more careful reflection. The search for truth and goodness isn’t a part-time affair, but it permeates every aspect of our lives; and any affirmation of faith that we make must be regarded as provisional and subject to revision.

In short, go forth and think deeply — and argue!


The sermon indeed provoked some dialogue after the worship service.

A member of the worship committee pointed out, “Not enough verbs in the seven principles. The one about ‘justice, equity, and compassion’ needs a verb or two. Because of that, they’re hard to remember.” I had never thought of that, but it’s true.

A professor of English in the congregation said that he felt the 1961 principles were better written, and besides that it would have been easy, in his opinion, to simply degenderize that language. When you read both the 1984/85 principles and the 1961 principles out loud, you realize he’s probably right — the 1961 principles are more concise and sound more vigorous.

A couple of people threatened to start some kind of grassroots discussion group on the seven principles here at First Unitarian. We’ll see what happens.

Questions, and responses

After the question and response sermon here on June 4, a member of the congregation sent me one more series of related questions. I liked his questions so much, that I have his permission to reprint it. I’ll also include my responses to his questions, but as always my responses are provisional, subject to further thought, reflection, and modification.

Dear —–,

You ask a series of excellent questions, starting with…

In many ways, the 20th C was the worst in the history of the world, in human behavior: the Holocaust, the Stalinist gulags, the Sino-Japanese wars and associated atrocities, WWI and its 700,000 dead per week during certain attrition, and then–often not included in this–our own A-bombs and fire bombs on Dresden. Isn’t the UU “soft on evil”?…

This is a key question for all religious liberals in our time. I do agree that such a critique may be valid when applied to certain Unitarian Universalists. For example, the bitter and long-standing feuds within our denominantion between the theists and the humanists are little more than quaint theological diversions when considered in light of the massive evil of the 20th C. (evil which shows every sign of continuing into the 21st C.). When you are confronting things like genocide and totalitarianism, such 19th C. arguments about belief vs. unbelief seem utterly insignificant, and indeed morally bankrupt. Instead of participating in abstract theological debate, the situation calls for direct confrontation of evil.

But some of our most persuasive theologians and some of our most influential lay leaders have been quite aware of the presence of evil, and they have devoted themselves to articulating theologies that will help us confront and overcome evil. Some examples:

William R. Jones, UU minister and theologian, is best know for his book Is God a White Racist? Jones is an African American who is all too aware of the presence of evil in the world. His contribution to theology has been to work on a black theology of liberation that was not dependent on God.

James Luther Adams, a Unitarian (later Unitarian Universalist) minister and theologian visited Nazi Germany just prior to the outbreak of the second world war. He got to know the members of the Confessing Church quite well, and was himself active in struggles against totalitarianism. His theology aimed to develop liberal religion in part as a way to fight totalitarianism through supporting democratic ideals (you could say he saw democracy as a theological concept).

The Women and Religion movement within Unitarian Unviersalism took on the evils of sexism in our denomination, in the 1970’s and later. I would argue that their movement did more to shape who we are as a religion today than any other theological force in the past half century. Currently, ethicist and theologian Sharon Welch is the most prominent UU scholar doing work in the area of feminism.

Is our theology, derived partly from a civilized 18C deism and 19C Concord, out of step with our horrid experience of the modern world?

That’s an argument that has been made, but I don’t find it persuasive. I feel that the theology which continues to be most influential for us today is not deism or Transcendentalism, but the theology of the social gospel. The Social Gospelers understood sin to be more than a personal matter — it was equally sinful (or even more so!) to allow social injustice to be perpetrated against the poor and the weak of society. Therefore, redemption had to be more than personal — it also had to be communal — you can’t just “get right with God” on your own, you have to consider the sinfulness and redemption of the surrounding social matrix as well.

The Social Gospel movement made social justice activity an essential part of church life — it was no longer enough to engage in simple charity, churches also had to fight to change the root causes of social evil. I’m something of a modern-day Social Gospeler, and I would articulate the theological implications of this theology something like this: Evil is present in us and in the world; it is our repsonsibility to overcome evil, especially where such evil arises from human actions; if you want to call on God for strength and guidance while you work to overcome evil that’s fine, but don’t expect God to bail us out.

Isn’t, for instance, Calvinism — and its “Born Damned” — easier to credit — and to understand?!

Well, that’s certainly the answer promoted by the fundamentalist Christians who are creating a reductive and conservative version of Calvinism in our time. But it strikes me that such a Calvinism is merely a cop out — it’s throwing up your hands and saying, We’re all horrible so why bother to change anything. William R. Jones’s work helps us understand that such an attitude allows us to dodge responsibility, because evil is just all “God’s will” — which means that, sure, you have to wrestle with the intellectual problem of theodicy, but you don’t have to take any responsibility for confronting evil yourself.

In summary, I find liberal religion in general, and Unitarian Universalism in particular, to be quite aware of the massive evils in society, and in our own hearts. I am not proud of the way Unitarian Universalists get sidetracked into petty concerns like whether or not God exists (especially when half the time the people who argue about these things don’t adequately define their terms). Nor am I proud of the way we all too often engage in social action without engaging in the necessary theological reflection. Yet I am proud of the fact that we continue to challenge evil in the world (and inside ourselves). And I am proud that, rather than just managing the symptoms of evil, we do make progress in rooting out deeper social evils when and where we find them.

That’s my response to your questions — as always, it’s a response, not a definitive answer! — Dan

Why church administration is important, 3

This is the third part of a series on how church administration can be a ministry.

Early on in this series, I mentioned that I believe there is a fundamental connection between theology and church life. Having said that, it’s worth exploring one or two different theologies and their potential connection to church life. Since I’m most familiar with my own tradition of Unitarian Universalism, the theologies I’ll explore are common in my tradition. Specifically, I’d like to explore feminist theology and ecological theology.

(A parenthetical note to my co-religionists: What usually poses as “theology” in our tradition is really religious ideology. Thus, when hard-line humanists engage in power struggles with hard-line Christians, they are struggling over power, not over theology. We can make this obvious in this particular example by asking two simple questions. We ask the hard-line humanists, “You say your theology is humanist, but what kind of humanist theology exactly? –existential, naturalistic humanist, Renaissance humanist, or what?” Then we ask the hard-line Christians, “You say your theology is Christian, but what kind of Christian theology exactly? –liberation, narrative, antinomian, or what?” As the hard-liners sputter and are unable to articulate a clear theology, it will quickly become clear that the labels “Christian” and “humanist” are smoke-screens to hide naked power struggles.)

Feminist theology poses interesting questions for an administrative ministry. Most obviously, feminist theology asks: why is it that men and boys generally have more power than women and girls, even in congregations where women are in the majority? But feminism also asks us to confront some other issues. There’s the continued existence of clergy sexual misconduct in our churches, almost entirely perpetrated by male ministers, and feminist theology asks why this is so. There’s the continued existence of power structures based upon hierarchical male-dominant models, and feminist theology asks if we can’t find power structures more in line with our professed theology. There’s the marginalization of programs for children, where religious education is treated as “women’s work” and nine-tenths of professional religious educators are women who are paid substantially less than ministers, and feminist theology asks we it is that we devalue children in this way.

Feminist theology poses interesting questions, while at the same time offering hope-filled possibilities in administration. Feminist theology suggests that sexual misconduct thrives on secrecy, and it offers hope-filled possibilities for openness and transparency in administration. Feminist theology implies that we can and should experiment with more equitable power structures within our churches, and to the hope-filled administrator it suggests that management by empowerment is a better administrative model than traditional command-and-control management. Feminist theology calls our attention to the marginalization of children and teenagers in our churches, suggesting to administrators that young people should be at the center of our churches, not the margins, and that so doing will ultimately make our churches healthier, safer places all around.

Turning to ecological theology, we find that it, too, poses some interesting questions for an administrative ministry. For example, if administration is concerned with safety, doesn’t that also imply that we should be concerned with the safety of the whole ecosystem around us? Thus, we should be concerned about the toxicity of our church buildings but also about the toxicity of the surrounding community where our church members live. And like feminist theology, ecological theology also asks us to consider the role of power structures; if the current secular power structures have gotten us into such an ecological mess, why on earth would we want to mimic them in our churches? And since ecological theology has pointed out how people of color suffer disproportionately from ecological disasters, it asks us to consider the role of racism in our churches. I have just begun my own exploration of ecological theology, and can’t say as much about it as I can about feminist theology, but I’m sure as I begin to try to answer its questions in my administrative ministry, I will understand it better.

That is, of course, what happens in an administrative ministry. Rather than simply preaching about theology, an administrative minister puts theology into action. Words are powerful, yes, and my own Unitarian Universalist tradition has “preaching to Word” at its historical core. But actually putting theology into action in a church community turns out to be theologically rich: you try to administer theologically, and in so doing you learn where you aren’t quite clear enough in your theology, so you reflect on your theology some more, and then try implementing it again.

To be continued

Thinking out loud

Still working on this week’s sermon, even though in general Friday serves as a my sabbath day. The title this week is “The Garden.” One of the texts is Genesis 1.27-28: “[27] So God created humankind in his image,/ in the image of God he created them;/ male and female he created them. [28] God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'” And my topic, as you might have guessed, is ecotheology.

One of the theologians I have been consulting on this topic is Rosemary Radford Reuther, in her book Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. She writes [my reading notes in square brackets]:

…I assume that there is no ready-made ecological spirituality and ethic in past traditions. The ecological crisis is new to human experience. [I.e., Ruether appears to admit the necessity of allowing ongoing revelation to humanity.] This does not mean that humans have not devestated their environment before. But as long as populations remained small and human technology weak, these devestations were remediable by migration, retreat from to-heavy urban centers, or adaptation of new techniques. [This challenges God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” in gen. 1.28.] Nature appeared a huge inexhaustible source of life, and humans small…. The radical nature of this new face of ecological devestation means that all past human traditions are inadequate in the face of it. Whatever useful elements may exist in, for example, Native American or Taoist thought, must be reinterpreted to make them usable in the face of both scientific knowledge and the destructive power of the technology it has made possible.

So one of the challenges of an ecotheology is that we’re going to have to completely rework religious traditions. I’d say this is a task that we Unitarian Universalists should be able to handle, as a non-creedal people who have been pretty willing to rework religious tradition (at least in small ways). Ruether goes on:

…Each tradition is best explored by those who claim community in that tradition [and she means “tradition” more broadly than the narrow confines of, say, Unitarian Universalism]. This does not preclude conversions into other traditions or communication between them…. But the plumbing of each tradition, and its reinterpretation for today’s crises, is a profound task that needs to begin in the context of communities of accountability. Those people for whom Taoism or Pueblo Indian spirituality are their native traditions are those best suited to dig those roots and offer their fruits to the rest of us. Those without these roots should be cautious in claiming plants not our own, respectful of those who speak from within.

So which tradition does Unitarian Universalism belong to? –and no, we aren’t deep or rich enough to claim to be our own tradition. It’s probably best to say we’re a post-Christian tradition, and while we might be post-Christian, we are post-Christian. But although Christianity is often equated with Western religion, that’s not at all true: we can’t forget the Jews; the neo-pagans have been helping us find the remnants of indigenous European traditions; there’s also a small but important secularist tradition that has to be included. Obviously most of our spiritual root system is in Protestant Christianity. But as a post-Christian spirituality, with individual members who are deeply embedded in Christian, Jewish, neo-pagan, and humanist spiritualities, we’re willing to acknowledge that our root system spreads a little more widely. We might be well-placed to mediate the conversation that will inevitably ensue between the different reinterpretations of Western spirituality.

I still don’t have a sermon, though, so I guess I better go back to Genesis 1.27-28 and see what I can do with it.

Spring equinox blues

Transcendentalist that I am, I suppose I should be writing a paean to the season, on this the first full day of spring. But I’m feeling crankier than usual today. I was reading the most recent issue of Christian Century at lunch today, and found more disturbing facts about child care. What really bugged me was hearing about the study that showed (no surprise) that very young children need good to excellent day care, yet only about 8% of day care centers qualify as good to excellent.

More annoying is the fact that Unitarian Universalist congregations are not setting a good example when it comes to child care. We’re all feminists, right? We all support the “7 Principles,” which grew out of the Women and Religion movement, right? One thing I learned from feminist theology — caring for our children cannot be dismissed as “mere women’s work” and therefore unimportant — instead, caring for and nurturing children must be at the center of what we do as human beings. Yet we are all too willing to pay our child care workers less than high school kids get for babysitting.

So let me throw down the gauntlet here. I believe that if Unitarian Universalist congregations truly valued child care, we would consistently pay our child care workers a starting wage of $20 an hour, going up to $30 an hour for experienced workers. (And spare me your budget woes — since most child care workers in our congregations work only 2 to 4 hours a week, this is really a small amount of money). We would pay them to get infant and child CPR training annually, and we would pay for additional in-service training opportunities at least twice a year.

I’d go further than that — all business meetings should provide child care, especially Board meetings and annual congregational meetings. Not to provide child care at such meetings effectively disenfranchises parents with babies and younger children. Which clearly violates our democratic principles.

Funny thing about providing decent child care. Most studies of church growth say that having excellent child care during worship services is one of the keys to congregational growth. When parents, and parents-to-be, first arrive they check out the nursery and the child care workers, and these parents make up a large percentage of newcomers. Want to keep your congregation small? — simply provide inadequate child care by poorly paid workers in a dingy room — and even people without babies will be turned off by your selfish attitude towards those without power. If you wonder why Unitarian Universalism isn’t growing, I contend part of the reason is the way we treat babies and their parents.

One last small rant-and-rave, and I’ll climb down off my soap box. One way you can find out how a congregation really feels about “the inherent worth and dignity of all persons” is to watch how the congregation treats persons who can’t advocate for themselves, people who don’t have any power or money — people like babies. Watch how your congregation treats babies, and you’ll know if your people walk the walk, or if they just talk the talk.

OK, done now. Spring is here — woo, hoo! Maybe the longer days will make me less cranky.

Belief, schmelief

Forget those beliefs, we do have a unifying theology.

I’ve decided I’m bored with the ongoing debate about whether Unitarian Universalists have a unifying theology or not. It bores me because all too often instead of getting into the really interesting areas of Unitarian Universalist theology, it winds up with someone declaring, “Well, I don’t believe there’s any unifying theology. I can believe whatever I want to believe in this church.”

Well — no. You can come up with counterexamples to disprove this last statement just as easily as I can. Obviously, we simply won’t tolerate outright sexist beliefs that proclaim men are superior to women. We have a low tolerance for charismatic authoritarian leaders who would control how we think and act. We would never require our young people to spend a year or two trying to convert people to Unitarian Universalism. If you want to believe these things, it will be easy to find you a church where you can believe ’em — but you can’t believe ’em in a UU church.

It is equally clear that we strongly affirm certain theological points. We strongly affirm insights of feminist theology, including that women are equal to men, that children are valuable, and that we are embodied beings. We affirm what William R. Jones has called the “functional ultimacy of humankind”; which is to say, whether or not we believe in God, we must act as if we have ultimate responsibility for our actions. We also remain strongly influenced by the insights of the social gospel movement of a hundred years ago, and we affirm that it is not enough for persons to try to save themselves, because in addition we all have a responsibility to save the world and make it a better place.

There you have three theologies which unify all us Unitarian Universalists: feminist theology, the functional ultimacy of humankind, and the theology of the social gospel. Bet we could come up with a few more, but that should be enough to get us started — and we do have to get started. All this boring bickering about beliefs is keeping us from acting out our theologies in the world.