Tag Archives: post-Christian

Beyond the progress narrative

Over at Left Coast Unitarian, James writes:

In general, I believe that Unitarian Universalism (though in particular I am thinking of pre-consolidation Unitarianism) constructed a post-christian identity based on Humanist Manifesto style supersessionism and the progress narrative. For a variety of reasons, the progress narrative does not really work any more. I don’t think anyone has really come up with anything else to fill the vacuum left in its wake.

That vacuum may be filling in some interesting ways. Carole Fontaine, a Unitarian Universalist scholar (professor of Hebrew Bible at Andover Newton), has pointed out that Unitarian Universalists are well-suited to negotiating between the two main camps of human rights organizations: those who do human rights out of divine law (theistic), and those who do human rights out of natural law (non-theistic). Her contention is that we already know how to have conversations across those boundaries. A summary of one of her lectures on the topic states:

Fontaine began by asking, “What will it take to form a global conscience for planet Earth?” Using both feminist analysis and deconstructionism, she looked at how the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an can influence understandings of human rights. Fontaine contends that Unitarian Universalism, with its traditions of religious tolerance and free inquiry, stands in a unique place to promote understanding between differing conceptions of human rights. Link

A wider application of the same principles (of relatively free inquiry, and relatively greater religious tolerance) could have Unitarian Universalism understanding one of its roles as facilitating conversations across various boundaries, in a postmodern world populated with many groups having quite different worldviews. This idea would place us as one more group among equals, thus avoiding the trap of thinking we’re the best of all religions.

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).