Theological unity — a conversation

On Thursday, January 31, Amy, the senior minister at our church, and I are going give a class on theological unity within Unitarian Universalism. We’re starting our class with an online conversation about the topic. And I’m going to begin my side of the conversation by listing five areas where I think Unitarian Universalists already have some degree of theological unity:

(1) Women and girls are as good as men and boys: During the 1970s and 1980s, Unitarian Universalism, like many liberal religious groups in the U.S., went through the feminist revolution in theology. We came out of those decades with a very clear theological consensus: when it comes to religion, women and girls are just as good as men and boys.

(2) Human beings must take responsibility for the state of the world: The Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones has argued that humanists and liberal theists have come to resemble each other in that both affirm the radical freedom and autonomy of human beings (“Theism and Religious Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Christian Century, May 21, 1975, pp. 520-525). Today, we have a wide consensus that, whether or not we believe in God, none of us believes some larger power is going to come fix up our problems for us — if humans made the mess, it’s up to us to fix it.

(3) Maintaining the sanctity of the Web of Life is a moral ideal: Bernard Loomer, a theologian who was a member of the UU Church of Berkeley, was the person who brought the concept of “the Web of Life” to Unitarian Universalists. For Loomer, the Web of Life was what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven — a web of relationships between humans, as well as between humans and non-human beings and inanimate objects. While many Unitarian Universalists would no longer make the connection to Jesus, we do have a wide consensus that maintaining the sanctity or integrity of the Web of Life is a moral ideal, even a moral imperative, for us.

(4) Healthy sexuality is something to enjoy, not something to be ashamed of: Beginning in the 1940s, Unitarians began offering sexuality education for young adults, and in the 1950s extended that to adolescents. Our sexuality education has always emphasized that sex is something to be enjoyed; we also have a broad consensus that we are called to refrain from using sexuality to exploit or hurt others (or ourselves).

(5) Love is the most powerful force in the universe: For centuries, Universalists affirmed that all humans would be saved and united with God; put another way, Universalists have always affirmed that love is the most powerful force in the universe. We continue to draw on this central theological concept today, e.g., in the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. We have a broad consensus that the power of love is a central part of our religious identity.

The five theological affirmations above distinguish us from many other theological groups (e.g., conservative Christians, secular humanists, fundamentalist Muslims). A member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church would not agree with any of the five theological affirmations above; secular humanists might balk at any implication of spirituality, especially in the fifth point; fundamentalist Muslims would probably disagree with several of the affirmations. At the same time, let’s be clear that there are other liberal religious groups that would be quite comfortable with these affirmations (e.g., Quakers, religious humanists, Reconstructionist Jews). While these five affirmations don’t completely define who we are as a religious movement, nevertheless they do represent five areas in which we have developed a broad and solid theological consensus.

Crossposted here.

15 thoughts on “Theological unity — a conversation”

  1. This is a great topic and one that needs to be discussed, in my view, in many UU congregations. My immediate question is: what makes these 5 statements “theological affirmations,” and not moral or ethical affirmations?

    Perhaps there is a theological basis for these affirmations, but it’s not clear. Take number (2), for example, why do we we think that human beings must take responsibility for the state of the world?

    My feeling is that our modern UU theology isn’t so very different from the theologies of our Christian Unitarian and Universalist ancestors. Perhaps a possible approach would be to start with their theological assumptions and update them for a 21st century UU congregation?

  2. This is an important effort, as I agree with UU that UUs have more theological unity than is sometimes asserted. I generally agree with your 5 points, although I think that in some cases (e.g., sexuality), these points really are manifestations of deeper basic principles (e.g., the 2nd UU principles of inherent worth and dignity).

    And it seems to me your 5th point unnecessarily makes a transcendental claim. I am highly doubtful that Love is the most powerful force in the universe. I find that hard to reconcile with the power of luck and the frequent cruelty of nature. On the other hand, I do think that in order to live in right relations with each other, we should strive to live in Love.

    The minister at my church, the Rev. Jill McAllister, has weekly closing words that include the following line: “And starting again today, strive to let all that you do be done in Love.” I wholehearedly agree.

    The need to live in Love to live in right relations seems to me to be a contingent fact about human nature and human society rather than a transcendent fact about the universe. In my view, grounding the need to live in Love in an unprovable and possibly wrong statement about transcendent reality is a weaker statement than grounding it in acute observation of the truths of this human world here and now.

    Biologist Steven Jay Gould once said that “human equality is a contingent fact of history”. I feel similarly about the emphasis on Love as a guide to right relations.

  3. This course is an excellent idea. I think many UU congregations are grappling with theological diversity. I consider myself a Pan-Humanist (religious and secular). I am active in a UU congregation and a local chapter of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Actually I think the values of the two are very similar (check out the link to the AHA and compare with the UU seven principles). But, of course, there are differences since some secular humanists are not interested in participating in a UU congregation. The most significant difference, in my opinion, is language, specifically precision of language. Religious humanists may be willing to use words such as “spiritual” which have fuzzy meanings. Even “love” has many meanings and secular humanist are likely interested in exactly what type of love one is talking about. A secular humanist is more likely to eschew use of a word until it has been defined and the definition is consistent with a naturalistic world view, since naturalism is a fundamental underpinning of humanism.

  4. I agree with other commenters above that I think these are more moral affirmations, but that they do point to a deeper theological affirmation within Unitarianism that is basically pantheism. Whatever is sacred and holy is in the world, not apart from the world, and is in us. And there is a moral requirement to live/act as if this were true.

    I would want to talk about the sacred worth of every person and the holiness of existence. For me I experience the holiness of existence as a loving God, but I don’t expect everyone to go along with me on that.

  5. OK, guys, I’ve been down and out with a cold, and I’m finally getting around to responding to these great comments.

    Victor, there is a strong theological basis for everything in the post. While I didn’t footnote as much as I could have, nearly every point rests on serious published theology. For point one, check out non-UU feminist theologians like Mary Daley, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenze; also check out the writings of Rebecca Parker, who is president of our UU theological school in Berkeley (her Proverbs of Ashes would be an interesting starting point). For point two, I have given a great reference, and I recommend you read it to get the theological grounding. For point three, see Bernard Loomer’s booklets “Unfoldings” and Unfoldings II,” long out of print and difficult to get, but still in some UU congregational libraries. Point 4 has not been widely written about in UU circles, and I admit that I’m extrapolating a little here, but check out queer theology (I admit I’m still learning about this area, and I’m going to be writing sermon on this general topic in the next two weeks — if it’s any good, I’ll post it here). For point 5, you can do no better than to read through Hosea Ballou’s magnum opus, A Treatise on Atonement.

    And Victor, as for our continuity with our Unitarian and Universalist roots, I absolutely agree. And yes, we should recognize that continuity, and update as needed. That in fact is part of my effort here — to point out some past theologians we should be looking at (Ballou, Loomer, Jones, etc.).

    Tim, regarding supposed transcendental claims, I should point out first that it is you who capitalized “love,” not I. Love can be seen in a positivist light as well. But beyond that detail, you’re anticipating my next post which is on theological disunity — you are clearly in the positivist camp when it comes to theological ontology!

    Jim. thanks for your comment. One minor quibble: most of the humanists I know would use “secular humanist” to denote someone who remains outside of religion, while a religious humanist would be willing to affiliate with a religious organization. That being the case, by defintion a secular humanist could not be part of a UU congregation — once they join, they become a religious humanist. While you are absolutely correct in pointing out that different humanists use language in different ways, I’m not sure it is helpful to charactaerize those differences under the names “religious humanist” and “secular humanist.” How about “spiritual humanist” and “positivist humanist”?

    Stephen, I have to disagree that these are merely moral affirmations. Certainly, many of them pertain to theological ethics (which should be distinguished from mere morality, by the way), but many of these theological positions have ontological, epistemological, teleological, and other implications. I also disagree that there is widespread theological agreement among Unitarian Universalists in pantheism — none of the theologians I have referenced above can be considered a pantheist, and only a small minority of Unitarian Universalists could possibly be considered pantheists (indeed, if you want to start a vociferous argument, go into a meeting of UU humanists or UU atheists, and accuse them of being pantheists — that’ll really piss ’em off!). I would recommend that you read the William R. Jones article referenced in the post — a quick Google search will locate it for you — for in that essay, Jones addresses precisely the point you make, but he finds a clear distinction between theists and atheists. Well worth reading, albeit a little challenging, and it might help you to further refine your own theology.

  6. Dan, I want to begin by stating that I always (well, almost always) find your perspective interesting. Your views are thoughtful and representative of many people in the UU community. Sometimes you make statements that amaze me. For example: “most of the humanists I know would use “secular humanist” to denote someone who remains outside of religion, while a religious humanist would be willing to affiliate with a religious organization. That being the case, by definition a secular humanist could not be part of a UU congregation — once they join, they become a religious humanist.”

    I’d be very interested to know your historical basis for the words that I’ve quoted above. I was a secular humanist when I joined the Unitarian community and no one ever suggested that I couldn’t be part of the community for that reason. In fact, Unitarians have welcomed secular humanists for more than a century. It’s been a long time since we were a purely religious organization. Universalists were probably less welcoming toward secular humanism. That said, the common ground for the religious and secular humanists has always been humanism, not religion.

    I’m well aware that secular humanists in many congregations and fellowships tried to exclude religious humanists and that the pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. However, I ask you to think about your words. Are you seriously saying that you have the intellectual or moral authority to exclude me from a community that I’ve been part of for 45 years (longer than you have, I’m guessing) on the basis of theological reasoning? I’m sure that I can’t change your beliefs to a secular perspective and that you can’t make me religious. Do you truly see this type of conflict as valuable? Do you truly believe that theological purity is the most important thing that UUs have to offer?

    We’ve been a mix of secular and religious beliefs for over a century. There’s been a lot of tension between the two orientations, but there’s also been a lot of learning. We don’t restrict membership to one sexual orientation. Why would we want to restrict it to one spiritual orientation?

  7. Bryan, if you want to define your religious position with the title “secular humanism,” that is certainly up to you. But you certainly confused me — “secular” is typically defined as that which is other than religion, and using that common definition of “secular,” I would understand a religious movement titled “secular humanism” to be a religious movement that had nothing to do with religion, which I find confusing. I would respectfully suggest that if you’re going to use “secular humanism” to name a religious movement, you might avoid confusing people like me if you could please define what you mean by “secular” in this term.

  8. Dan, I’m not defining my religious position as secular humanist. I’m saying that I don’t have a religious position. I’ve been a member of the UU community since 1968 and I’ve always been a secular humanist. I agree that the words “religious” and “secular” define different worldviews. For example, I could never agree with your statement that “love is the most powerful force in the universe”. The part of the universe that we can observe and experience is infinitesimally small. How can we possibly know that what we call love is the most powerful force in the entire universe? A statement like that can only be a statement of faith and mystical belief. Perhaps my personal orientation would be clearer to you if I define myself as a scientific humanist.

  9. Dan, I’d like to add to what I’ve said above. Explaining what I do or don’t believe can improve communication and understanding, but isn’t the heart of what I’m trying to say.

    I disagree with your assertion that the UU community is and has been an exclusively religious organization. I think that it’s simply not true. I know UU Pagan humanists, UU Buddhist humanists, UU Christian humanists, and so on. When I joined the UU community (as a Unitarian), there was a place for people who thought of themselves as religious and also for people who considered themselves secular. If you believe that this has changed, I’d like to know when and how you think it happened. I’d also like to hear the moral and ethical justification for removing people from their place in the UU community on the basis of theology.

    I’m not defining the whole UU community as secular humanist; however, I’ve known many UUs who call themselves secular humanists. I don’t believe that you have the right to exclude them from the community.

  10. Bryan D, let’s go back to the main topic, which is theology. Let me define some terms which may clarify this conversation.

    Theology is reasoned discourse about the core concern(s) of religion. Religion is a social and human phenomenon; it is human communities which cluster around shared practices, and/or texts, and/or attitudes, and/or celebrations, etc. Using my definitions, “UU Buddhism” is not a theological position, it is instead a collection of shared religious practices, religious texts, and religious attitudes which form a subcommunity within the larger Unitarian Universalist community; by contrast, having a reasoned conversation about the engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh would be doing theology. Similarly, “UU Pagan” names a subgroup that might celebrate seasonal religious events together (e.g., Samhain, winter solstice, etc.) and share common religious concerns and attitudes; however, a reasoned conversation about the ontology and soteriology implicit in Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark would be an example of doing theology.

    Within the context of a theological conversation, it is also possible to have an interesting conversation about theologies that fit into a particular religious community. That is the purpose of this post: what are the theologies that are commonly held within Unitarian Universalism? And in response to this broad question, my first response is to say that feminist theology is a core unifying theology of Unitarian Universalism. UU Pagans, UU Buddhists, and other UU subgroups all generally hold to some form of feminist theology. And if you don’t feel comfortable with feminist theology — that is, if you think women and girls are not equal to men and boys — you will feel some level of discomfort within Unitarian Universalism.

    Based on that example, let’s take a look at persons who hold a theological position of secularism. Generally speaking, I would define secularism as a theological position that either (a) prefers to remove itself from religion, and even believe we’d be better off without religion, while acknowledging that some people might actually want religion (Richard Rorty and Daniel Dennett may be examples of this position); or (b) thinks the world would be a better place if religion were done away with completely (Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins may be examples of this position). Secularism is a legitimate theological position. But by definition, secularism as a theological position sees little or no value in religion; so by definition someone with secularism as their main theological position are going to feel less than comfortable within the religious community which is Unitarian Universalism. Having said that, most of us show up in religious communities with little thought of doing theology — we come for the community, we come because it’s a calming and restful place to be on Sunday morning, we come because of a whole bunch of reasons which may have little to do with theology per se. And the fact of the matter is there are plenty of people have spent a long time in a religious community where they disagree with, or feel uncomfortable with, the theology of that religious community.

    And one of the things that I have seen happen is that those holding a secularist theological position do come to Unitarian Universalist religious communities, often for the sense of community. But inevitably, there comes a point where these secularists start feeling uncomfortable. Part of their discomfort, I would argue, arises from the fact that if they are part of a religious organization (a UU congregation), they’re facing an internal contradiction, especially if they are the type of secularist who thinks the world would be a better place if religion were done away with — and that internal contradiction is that they see no point in religion, yet they are part of a religion.

    I don’t quite understand where you got the idea that I think we should kick all the secularists out of Unitarian Universalism — I don’t think that at all, I’m an advocate of relatively porous social boundaries. But we’re not talking sociology here, we’re talking theology. My point is, quite simply, that when you’re doing theology, a logical contradiction occurs when a secularist joins a religious community. And a broader, related point is that when a religious community has a generally accepted unifying theology or theologies, if you disagree with that unifying theology, you’re going to experience a certain level of discomfort. And a corollary to that is that where there is theological disunity regarding a certain theological position (see my later post about theological disunity for examples in Unitarian Universalism) among the participants of a religious community, that disunity is going to result in much less discomfort.

    One last request — Bryan D., before you respond to this comment, please re-read the post carefully, and re-read all the above comments as well. I think you’re trying to have a different conversation than the conversation that’s happening here — I want us to stick to this particular conversation.

  11. Dan, could you explain the difference between feminist theology and just feminism. The term feminist theology, to me implies that feminism comes from a religious perspective. I think that feminism actually comes more from a humanist perspective. Most religions (UU excepted) and religious “sacred” texts are actually anti-women. UU is an exception to this, I think, because of our humanist perspective. We do not have to worry about those anti-women myths and texts in the Bible, because, as humanists, we realize these texts for what they are; writings, mostly by men, that are products of their time which have no claim on our moral development. UU humanism, and transcendentalism, I guess, freed us from these texts. Most religions, Christian and others, have not benefited from this humanist perspective. Feminism has come about by overcoming these religious attitudes. So, the term feminist theology is confusing to me.

  12. Jim Barnett, here goes: — Feminist theology is a theological position that affirms that women and girls are just as good as men and boys. Feminist theology is a subset of feminism.

    There are many different flavors of feminist theology, all of which take different approaches to feminist theology, and all of which are as valid as humanist feminist theology:
    — There are plenty of Christian feminist theologians — Rosemary Radford Reuther is one well-known example — and they typically reinterpret Christian scriptures showing how those scriptures are (a) limited by the time and culture in which they are written and (b) able to be reinterpreted in feminist terms (e.g., showing how the early Christians treated men and women equally, but that equality was later obscured by the male dominated church hierarchy which started to form not long after Jesus’ death).
    — There are plenty of Neo-Pagan feminist theologians. Indeed, Neo-Paganism as it exists today has coalesced around feminist concerns, and arguably has the least anti-woman baggage.
    — There are also Islamic feminist theologians, about which I know less, but what little I know is very compelling. One feminist Islamic theologian I heard speak argued in part that the followers of Muhammad during his life and immediately after his death were given approximately equal power to men. These theologians may point out that Muhammad’s first follower was a woman; and the ones I’ve heard or read again charge that the equality of Muhammad’s message was compromised by the men who took over the religion later on.
    — There are Hindu feminist theologians, who may have a somewhat easier time of it, given how many powerful goddesses they can draw from to show that women are just as good as men (if not better, depending on the goddess!).

    I’m skipping over Jewish feminist theologians, Confucian feminist theologians, feminist theologians within Native American religions, and feminist theologians within Orisia devotion traditions. I’m sure there are many other feminist theologians, from many other tradition, whom I haven’t heard about or read.

    And then there are the humanist feminist theologians. Actually, they have a much harder time of it than you might think. Early humanist theology, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was pretty sexist (and unconsciously so). Indeed, I’ve heard some feminist critics from other religious traditions arguing (fairly convincingly) that humanist feminist theologians have an uphill battle because the humanist material they start with is more sexist than many religious scriptures. I have to say, the first Humanist Manifesto is kind of embarrassing in places. And I’ve heard women humanists today offer some very pungent criticisms of the macho posturing of the New Atheists. Read the magazine of the American Humanist Association, and you will find that humanists are still working through sexism.

    And Unitarian Universalism has its own issues with sexism (please remember that only about half of all Unitarian Universalists are humanists, so you should not equate the two). Look at the 1964 hymnal, or the 1961 principles and purposes, and you will see why there was a big feminist push in the 1970s and early 1980s to rewrite the hymnal, and the principles and purposes. I remember that battle well, and Unitarian Universalists have a lot to be embarrassed about. We had plenty of anti-women myths — go read the book The Prophetic Sisterhood, all about Unitarian women ministers in the late 19th century, and you will be disgusted at us — and that includes some early proto-humanists.

    And as for us being all perfectly feminist now — absolutely not! There is plenty of sexism within Unitarian Universalism today. I’ve seen girls harrassed at youth conferences. I’ve seen women ministers dismissed for being women, or criticized for speaking forcefully when you know a male minister would not have been criticized. At social hour and in committee meetings, I’ve seen men treating women condescendingly. And on, and on. Sexism is alive and well in every Unitarian Universalist congregation, every General Assembly, every district meeting, that I’ve ever been in.

    In fact, I’d say there aren’t many Unitarian Universalists who can match the really cutting-edge Christian feminist theologians. Rosemary Radford Reuther is very interesting on feminist Christian theology and its relation to environmental justice and ecological theology — I don’t know many Unitarian Universalists who are advanced as she is. And the Neo-Pagan feminist theologian Starhawk also is way ahead of just about any Unitarian Universalist I know of. So I don’t think we get to be smug about this issue.

  13. Thanks Dan,
    You are comparing cutting edge theologians in the various religious groups that you mentioned to everyday practice of ordinary UUs and Humanists. I’m sure these theologians are courageous in their attempt to reform their religions. But lets be realistic, most religions as practiced today are anti-woman. Women cannot be priests in Catholicism, women are second class citizens in many Islamic countries, Dalit women are treated horribly by higher caste Hindus, orthodox Jewish men will not shake hands with a women and I don’t think there are many female Buddhist priests. In comparison, there are many UU female ministers, UUs have largely removed sexist language from worship and everyday language, humanists support feminist objectives and women in leadership positions are not uncommon (many atheists do not identify as humanists, so I think they should not be lumped together). While not all UUs are Humanists, humanism certainly influenced who we are today and as long as there is a large humanist presence, UU will be influenced by humanism. I hope I am not smug, even UUs and Humanists have room to improve, but we are decades ahead of most religions others it comes to feminism.

  14. Jim, you’re not convincing me. My experience of ordinary Neo-Pagans is that they are ahead of ordinary UUs, and way ahead of ordinary Humanists (I experience religious humanism as being pretty sexist). Also, if you read up on liberal Islamic feminists, you will find they argue that Western feminism is culturally bound and not universal — they would say that you are merely imposing your own sense of cultural superiority on non-Western religions.

  15. Dan, two questions.

    1. I confess I don’t know a lot about Neo-Paganism. So, how are they ahead of ordinary UUs with regard to feminism?

    2. Do the liberal islamic feminists believe that women should be able to be Imams?

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