Tag Archives: James Luther Adams

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

Associationism, part one

Abstract: In this four-part essay, I claim that the central organizing principle of Unitarianism, Universalism, and now Unitarian Universalism, has less to do with theology, liturgy, religious practice, etc., and more to do with social and institutional structures. We are unified by an institutional approach which I call associationalism. I define associationalism through describing past and existing associational structures, and then briefly set forth a possible direction for the future of associationism within Unitarian Unviersalism.

A historical and descriptive definition: Beginnings

In terms of organizational structure, Unitarian and Universalist congregations in North America are often closely related to the Congregationalist and Baptist traditions. Stephen Marini has documented how early Universalist congregations in central New England often started out as Baptist congregations; and it is well known that many New England Unitarian congregations began as Puritan congregations, and so are closely related to those Congregationalist congregations that also emerged from the old Puritan Standing order churches. We could say, more broadly, that these are congregations that come out of the English Free Church tradition.

It is important to remember that not all Unitarian and Universalist congregations trace their historical roots back to the English Free Church tradition. The Icelandic Unitarian churches in Canada were founded by liberals from the Icelandic Lutheran tradition, who happened to find a comfortable institutional home within Unitarianism; similarly, Nora Church in Minnesota was founded by liberal Norwegian Lutherans. King’s Chapel in Boston evolved away from its Church of England roots to a Unitarian theology, but it still keeps its revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer today. There are churches like First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia and the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester which were founded independently as Unitarian and Universalist churches without any previous denominational connections. And once Unitarians and Universalists traveled West of the Allegheny Mountains, they often had tenuous and even antagonistic connections with eastern churches, and their organizational structures were innovative, diverse, and/or fluid.

Thus it is quite simply wrong to state that all Unitarian Universalist congregations today trace their organizational structures back to the Puritan congregationalist methods captured in 17th century New England political theocracy, church covenants, and documents like the Cambridge Platform. That 17th century New England inheritance is one part of our organizational history, but it is only one part. Continue reading

Religious literacy: What do kids need to know about religion?

We’ve tentatively identified four big educational goals for the religious education programs in our church, and one of those goals is to make sure children have basic religious literacy compatible with the society they’re living in. More specifically, we want children who have gone through our program to know: (a) the main Bible stories they’re likely to encounter in Western culture (in literature, film, painting, etc.); (b) stories and facts about the main world religions they will encounter both in their immediate environment and in current events; (c) a basic knowledge of the history of Western religion (primarily Western Christianity), and in particular the history that led to the formation of Unitarianism and Universalism; and (d) the main characters and stories of Unitarianism and Universalism in North America.

Yesterday I had lunch with three of the lay leaders in the children’s religious education program to talk about assessment strategies for our religious education program. I suggested that part of our assessment strategy for this educational goal of religious literacy should be a list of the specific things we want to teach our kids; i.e., which Bible stories should kids know? which famous Unitarians and Universalists should they know? etc.

Below is my first attempt at generating such a list, with material to be covered from ages 3 to 18. I would love to have your comments on, suggestions for, corrections to, and additions to this list.

Continue reading

Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 8

Eighth in, and conclusion to, a series. Bibliography included at the end of this post. An appendix to the series will follow. Back to the first post in this series.

(F) Conclusion

In the end, the hard work needed to overcome the challenges and threats to common worship liberal worship is well worth the effort. Post-Christian common worship is ultimately a countercultural act; it holds out hope for change for the better in a world that is in dire need of change; it helps to strengthen us as individuals, and the wider democracy, in the face of “the impersonal forces of a mass society with its technological devices for producing stereotyped opinion.” (Adams 1998, p. 172) At the same time, post-Christian common worship without the self-discipline of a private devotional life, or participation in small group devotions, is probably impossible (or at least improbable).

What is crucial for post-Christian common worship, if it is to survive and thrive? I believe that we must remain attentive to the reforming tendencies of the post-Christian attitude. The tendency of many post-Christian congregations is to reform only so far, and then to stop:– to adopt the flaming chalice as a liturgical element, for instance, but not to take the next logical step of figuring out what it means to include a flaming chalice in worship, and then the next logical step of saying those reasons during worship.

Or, more to the point: if we are going to engage in the counter-cultural act of doing post-Christian common worship, we need to start talking about what it means to be a post-Christian, and what it means to do post-Christian worship. Drifting along and letting the wind blow us hither and yon should not be an option — someone had better grab the tiller, and someone else had better watch the mainsheet, and the jib, before we drift onto some rocks of inattentiveness and founder.

Which is the whole purpose of this series of posts. I’ve grabbed the tiller, and if you don’t like the direction I’m steering, now’s the time to say so. If you see rocks in the direction I’m steering, sing out now! It would also be nice if someone selse would take a turn at the tiller. So start talking….

Continue reading

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

Religion and spirituality, v. 0.1

A perfect summer day. It got down to about sixty degrees last night, cool enough that I had to pull a blanket over me before morning. But the weather forecast says a heat wave is going to set in tomorrow. I believe the forecast. My joints are starting to ache, which means a change in weather is coming within twenty four hours. On perfect summer days like this, my mind seems to work more clearly, so I better write down the long string of thoughts I had this morning before the heat melts it away….

The big argument

You’ve probably heard the argument, too — people who say they prefer spirituality to religion, that they can be spiritual without belonging to a church or a temple or a Zen monastery. Here are some thoughts on this argument….

Spirituality fits the North American mood. Most North Americans have only been on this continent for a few short generations. For the majority of North Americans, we or our not-too-distant ancestors came here to find a better life. Our North American mythology says, we can leave Europe or Asia or South America, and come here, and make a better life. That mythology has even permeated the lives of those North Americans whose ancestors were brought here forcibly, or who lived here as indigenous people before the great flood of immigrants. We believe that North American myth, at least to some extent. We are do-it-yourselfers, we believe it is possible to pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.

Spirituality means you can do it yourself. Henry David Thoreau, who resigned membership in the Unitarian church of his birth as soon as he became an adult, seems to be the perfect example of do-it-yourself spirituality that worked. He didn’t need his church. Instead of going to church, he’d go out and take a long walk. These days, not as many people walk, but they might do a weekend yoga retreat when the mood takes them, or read one of those books from the “Inspirational” section of the bookstore, or go to church when they feel like it. They chart their own course without reference to anyone else.

Religion is different. You do religion in a group, with other people. The fashionable way to say it is that you do religion “in community.” That means that in a religion, you are held accountable. You can’t just do anything you want. If you join a Zen monastery, you cannot say to the Zen master, I don’t feel like doing sitting meditation today, I’m going to take a long walk instead. Liberal religious congregations in North America have far lower standards than Zen monastaerys, but we do expect people to participate in the life of the congregation and give money.

Religion is more difficult than spirituality. Others in your religious community can question you about your religious life. They even have the freedom to make judgments about your religious path. And you have to question yourself as well. In do-it-yourself spirituality, if the yoga retreat doesn’t work out, you can always sign up for Zen meditation classes, leaving the yoga behind you. You can believe that no mistakes are possible. In religion, if your religious path doesn’t work out, you have to confront yourself and ask why.

It’s like music

You can make an analogy between religion and spirituality, and playing a musical instrument. Spirituality is like practicing your instrument. You can get really good at playing your musical instrument in the privacy of your own bedroom. But you’re just playing for yourself. It’s kind of solipsistic, with you in your own little musical universe where no one else exists. When you’re playing alone, you can easily ignore some of the wrong notes, and the changes in tempo, and the times when you stop in the middle of a piece and start over again. You can hear the way it’s supposed to sound in your head.

Religion is like practicing your instrument, and then going out and playing a concert or a gig, or at least playing along with some friends in someone’s living room once a month. When you play with other people, you get out of your own head. You know right away when you play a wrong note, and you know if you’ve played well or badly by the reactions of the other musicians, or the reactions of the audience if you’re playing a concert or a gig.

Any musicians will tell you that practicing is essential, taking lessons is good, but if you really want to make progress you have to play with other people, or play for an audience. Religion is something like that. Take those long walks. Go on a yoga retreat. And maintain regular contact with a religious community, who will let you know when you’re going astray (which can be uncomfortable at best), and who will take you much farther along your religious/spiritual path than anything else.

The theory behind it

I’m taking my basic concepts for this little essay from a group of thinkers known as the American pragmatists. The pragmatists don’t have any particular interest in trying to figure out the “ultimate truth.” Maybe there isn’t any ultimate truth, or if there is we sure haven’t found it yet. But if we want to make our ideas clearer, if we want to get a little closer to assuming-it-exists ultimate truth, we can work out a pretty good approach.

You get together with a group of people who are all interested in a similar problem. Call this group the “community of inquirers,” because they’re a community who are inquiring together into the same or related questions. Different people in this community of inquirers put out provisional ideas, hypotheses, and then everyone kind of hashes things out together. Bit by bit, together you will make your ideas clearer. If there is some “ultimate truth,” this is probably the way to get there.

If you have any training in science, you will see that this approach is pretty similar to scientific method. You can’t do science alone. Once you come up with some results, you have to ask others in your community of inquirers to check your insights and findings, and see if they can replicate your results. (Interestingly, many scientists are actually willing to make some kind of claim that there is some “ultimate truth” out there.) However, I’m expanding this method beyond just science. I’ve already made the analogy to musical performance, which uses the same basic method, altered somewhat for the peculiarities of playing music. Musical performance probably provides a better analogy for doing religion.

When it comes to people who are the great innovators, there’s an interesting corollary to all this. Just as a great composer has to learn how to play at least one musical instrument, or just as a scientist doing pure research has to know basic lab skills and lots of mathematics, the innovators in religion and spirituality have to have some basic grounding in doing religion. (Just doing spirituality would not be enough, because it’s too solipsistic.) Yes, Henry Thoreau stopped going to church when he was an adult. But he grew up in a church, his family with whom he lived all his life were deeply involved in that church, and Thoreau had constant and regular contact with other Transcendentalists with whom he constantly checked his new insights. James Luther Adams, the great 20th C. Unitarian Universalist theologian, is a better example. He was active in church and denomination, and his work and presence (by all reports) did much to make Unitarian Universalism a better community.

In fact, what Adams wrote about “voluntary associations,” which are somewhat analogous to what I’m calling a community of inquirers, takes the whole idea a step farther. Adams’s idea was that a community of inquirers, a voluntary association, can in turn go out and transform the world for the better. That provides an interesting twist on the whole idea of some “ultimate truth….”

Questions? Comments? After all, what I’ve just said is entirely provisional, subject to correction and revision!