Theological disunity

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.

8 thoughts on “Theological disunity

  1. C. Scot Giles

    I totally agree that we do not agree among ourselves. In fact, I would argue a stronger case: there is no such thing as Unitarian Universalism as a theological position. There are only people of very different positions who self-identify as Unitarian Universalists.

    The Unitarian Universalist Association is an association of independent religious societies that differ widely in their character. The term “Unitarian Universalism” indicates: (1) a loose freewheeling religious community of no particular specificity, or (2) a religious corporation in Massachusetts with a certain amount of property, invested capital and a trademark.

    There is no widespread agreement on Unitarian Universalist theology, ontology, morals, ethics, epistemology, liturgical style or spiritual practices. There are no (or no consequential) shared religious practices (Flower Communion doesn’t count), stories or unique holidays (I don’t think Chalica counts).

    In short. We ain’t a religion. We are an association of people who practice different religions. The Freemasons have way more specificity than we do, and they do not claim to be a religion.

  2. Dan

    Scot, your comment reminds me of listening to Carl Scovel speak on this same topic. He accused Unitarian Universalists of leaving behind our historical position as a free association of congregations, and becoming a denomination — I remember he pointed to our hymnal as an example of denominationalism. OK, he was arguing against your point, but you’re both pointing to the possibility that UUism is, or should be, a free association rather than a “religion.”

    From a historical perspective, both you and Carl (it seems to me) tend to leave out of consideration the Unviersalist side of our heritage, which was much more clearly unified (with room for disagreement, as is true in all religions), and clearly a denomination. So from a historical perspective, perhaps we might say that we left behind our Universalist heritage, and have moved away from being a well-defined denomination or religious movement.

    Though really this raises the whole issue of demoninationalism. Are we still a denomination? If so, that would imply that we are Protestants — which we definitely were when I was a kid growing up in a UU church in eastern Massachusetts in the 1960s and 1970s. Have we actually changed all that much since the 1970s, and have we now moved away from Protestantism? — if so, then I suppose we’re no longer a denomination, and then your comment is right on target.

    Oh, and I totally agree that the Freemasons have more unity than do Unitarian Universalists — and, interestingly, Freemasonry is sometimes included as a religious movement, or quasi-religious movement, by scholars of new religious movements.

  3. Kim Hampton

    Your response to Scot Giles highlights the main sticking point for me…we don’t remember Universalism (or diluted Universalism so much that it really is just a stand-in for “anything goes”).

    Marcus Garvey taught us that “a people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” The reason UUism has so much disunity is because too many UUs think the past has nothing to tell us about the present and can’t help guide us. Modern UUism is trying to invent a square wheel, which is never going to work. But as long as we run away from our history, nothing will change.

    On #2….the other thing that liberation theology does that doesn’t sit well with UUism is say that, not only is G-d in process, but that G-d and humanity are working the relationship out together.

  4. Tim Bartik

    You mention that there is a lot of disagreement over ethics.

    I wonder whether in practice there is really that much disagreement over what are ethical principles actually are, as opposed to what is the basis for such ethics. So two UUs may both agree in respecting the dignity of each and every human being, and also on the need to respect nature. But one may derive these commitments from transcendent theistic sources, another from a human-based ethical philosophy, and the other from a more earth-centered spirituality.

    So, these disagreements on the basis for these commitments seem to me of more consequence if they lead to dramatically different conclusions. With respect to the issue over the role of humans in the universe, I would be curious if this really leads in practice to radically different ways of daily living in relation to others. It doesn’t seem to me that it necessarily does.
    And I don’t think it necessarily does because in practice, most people start with their intuitive intuitions about ethics and how they were brought up, and then refine these intuitions via experience and feelings and dialogue. The metaphysical superstructure is rarely what dictates the actual ethical principles that people live by.

  5. Dan

    Kim, thanks for expanding on the implications of liberation theology. However, there are specific theologians of liberation whose liberation theologies do not include God. Obvious examples: William R. Jones and Anthony Pinn, two black liberation theologians, saw/see no need for God in their theologies. I think your basic point still applies, though — there is a sense in both Jones and Pinn of having to work things out with others (in their case, with other humans) that sticks in the craw of many hyperindividualistic Unitarian Universalists. I trace that hyperindividualism back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; for both of them, their relationship with the sacred (a personal God in Emerson’s case, something more pantheistic in Thoreau’s case) did not allow for much in the way of dependence.

    Anyway, your comment has gotten me thinking — thanks again.

  6. Dan

    Tim Bartik — Ah, so you’re a pragmatist, in the sense of American pragmatism which traces its roots back to Emerson, and up through Charles S. Peirce, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Cornel West. So am I, as it happens. Here’s Charles S. Peirce’s statement of this principle, from his foundational article “How To Make Our Ideas Clear”:

    “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”

    For me, pragmatism is a wonderful corrective to endless (and pointless) debates about ontological theology. William R. Jones arguably takes a pragmatist position in his essay “Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” in which he points out that the effects of certain conceptions of theism (which he calls “humanocentric theism”), and the effects of certain conceptions of humanism, turn out to be much the same (i.e., it’s up to us to fix the problems of the world, so we had better get to it). That being the case, from the pragmatist point of view, humanism and humanocentric theism wind up being much the same conception.

    I would note in passing that while many Unitarian Universalists tend towards pragmatism, many more Unitarian Universalists seem to spend a lot of time in endless debates about ontological theology, which latter bore me to tears.

  7. Victor Beaumont


    Glad to know you are feeling better.

    “Engaging our theological diversity” is a great topic, and one that I think we need to discuss in our congregations. But I’m beginning to think that developing a Unitarian Universalist theology we can all agree on is a job best left up to the UU clergy.

    I really wish someone would explain to me what the theological bedrock of our faith us – maybe it’s nothing more than our covenant to walk together in the ways of truth and affection – in spite of what may appear to outsiders to be a smorgasbord of different views on the nature of Ultimate Reality.

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