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.
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