In a previous post, I looked at some areas where Unitarian Universalists have a great deal of theological unity. Now I’d like to turn to four areas where there is far less unity.
(1) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement regarding a fundamental ontological claim of process theology. To oversimplify, process theology asserts that God is in the process of evolving. Therefore, a Unitarian process theologian like Charles Hartshorne might call the concept of omnipotence a “theological mistake”; God cannot be omnipotent because God is in process. By contrast, many Unitarian Universalists today will argue that if you’re going to talk about God, one attribute that God must have is omnipotence; this is the foundation for many arguments by Unitarian Universalist atheists or humanists showing that God must not exist.
This represents fundamental theological disagreements about the nature of God, and about the nature of reality (ontology).
(2) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement regarding one key component of most liberation theologies. Most liberation theologies, including Black liberation theology, women’s liberation theology, and Latin American liberation theology, argue that members of oppressed groups (African Americans, women, the poor) must take charge of their own theological development. Black theologians often argued for separation from white religious communities; perhaps not permanent separation, but for a long enough time to do theology and religion without being dominated by Whites. Second-wave feminists formed consciousness-raising groups for women only. Latin American liberation theologians formed “base communities” run by the poor themselves. But this practice of separation has long been controversial among Unitarian Universalists, with some people arguing that we should be working towards true equality rather than separation. Indeed, some individual Unitarian Universalists might look for separation for one group (e.g., women’s groups) while challenging separation by another group (e.g., non-white caucuses).
This represents fundamental theological disagreements about the nature of human beings and human community (theological anthropology), about theological methodology, and about ethics.
(3) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement about the existence of the supernatural, or what “supernatural” even means. The most obvious dichotomy is between those Unitarian Universalists who affirm the existence of God or gods/goddesses, angels, and other clearly supernatural entities, on the one hand; and on the other hand, those Unitarian Universalists who are positivists and who only accept what scientific method can investigate. But there are many gradations of belief or disbelief in the supernatural. There are Transcendentalists who would affirm that there is more to a flower than taxonomy and microbiology, and that our experience of the world goes beyond mere sensory impression to intuition, i.e., we are not limited by the kind of knowing that is scientific knowledge. There are possibilitarians who, while valuing scientific method, believe that human science is pretty limited at this moment, and hold open the possibility that we may extend our knowledge and even our ways of knowing to include what now appears to us to be supernatural.
This represents an obvious fundamental theological disagreement about the nature of reality (ontology); but it also represents a fundamental theological disagreement about how we can know the universe (epistemology); and also implicit are fundamental disagreements in the area of aesthetics and the value of the beautiful.
(4) Unitarian Universalists are not in agreement about the place of human beings in the universe. At one extreme, some humanists and some liberal Christians (I would call them “humanistic Christians”) tend to give human beings central importance in the universe: the universe is to be understood in human terms (e.g., through science done by humans); human good, either explicitly or implicitly, receives the most emphasis in morality and ethics; and the end, or telos, of the universe is firmly linked with human ends. At another extreme, some Neo-pagans and Transcendentalists and deep ecologists would not give human beings central importance in the universe: humans are to be understood as being of peripheral importance in the universe, ranging from the level of the cosmos (most macroscopic level) to the level of our earth’s surface (a relatively microscopic level), and indeed placing humans at the center of the universe may even be considered delusional and destructive; human good must be balanced against non-human good (or really, non-human “goods,” plural); and humans are only a sideshow in the grand narrative of the universe. And we will find Unitarian Universalists spread widely across the spectrum in between these two extremes.
This represents fundamental theological disagreements about the nature of reality (ontology), about ethics, and about the end or telos of the humans and the universe (teleology).
In this all-too-brief essay, I have shown how Unitarian Universalists disagree in the following areas of theological inquiry: ontology, theological anthropology, theological method, ethics, epistemology, and teleology. For those who would include aesthetics as an area of theological inquiry, I have indicated that this, too, is a possible area of theological disagreement.
Having outlined some areas of theological agreement, and some areas of theological disagreement, we are now in a better position to assess whether there is more theological agreement or more theological disagreement among us. And we are also in a better position to assess whether we should be striving for more theological unity, or not.
Crossposted on the UUCPA blog.