New upper elementary curriculum

I’ve been working on developing a curriculum for upper elementary children. The basic idea comes from the old Beginnings: Earth, Sky, Life, Death curriculum developed in the mid-twentieth century by Sophia Fahs. However, much of the content is new, the theological framework has been updated, and the curriculum has been designed to be extremely user-friendly. And now almost the entire curriculum is online for you to use — but before I get to that, let me tell you about several key features of this curriculum.

First, much of the content is completely new. I have included some of the stories from the old “em”Beginnings book, but I have always gone back to primary sources and/or scholarly commentary, and written these stories from scratch. I have also included completely new material, such as the story from the Yoruba tradition — a religious tradition that wasn’t even recognized by most Westerners when the old Beginnings book was written.

Second, the theological framework has been updated. Many UU curriculums of the past have been rightly criticized for assuming that all other religions are not as “advanced” as Unitarian Universalism; this curriculum attempts to avoid that trap of neo-colonialism. A companion curriculum is in development that will present Unitarian Universalist myths and stories in exactly the same way that these stories from other religions are presented. This curriculum also assumes that the possibility of significant diversity, of children coming from multi-religious households; i.e., the children in this UU Sunday school class might also have household members or close relatives who participate in another religious tradition such as Hinduism, Yoruba traditions, Judaism, Christianity, Chinese popular religion, etc. Thus I have tried to avoid any implication that another religion is less “true” or less important than our own religion.

This curriculum is also designed to provide some foundation for our version of the old “Church across the Street” curriculum, in which middle schoolers visit other faith communities. Thus, in some of the sessions, reference is made to religious practices that are related to the story for that session, to relate the mythic or narrative dimension of a religion with the ritual dimension (to use two of Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion). Additionally, the illustrations include some photographs of the material dimension of religion.

Finally, and most importantly, the curriculum is designed to for today’s volunteer teachers. Sunday school teachers today need a curriculum that they can pick up ten minutes before class, and teach successfully with little or no prep time. At the same time, some experienced teachers may want the possibility of going more deeply into the lesson. So this curriculum is designed to provide maximum flexibility for teachers. After two years of use in our congregation, teachers seem to like the curriculum pretty well.

By putting this curriculum online, my goal is to make the curriculum even more user-friendly. The Web site uses responsive design, so that the curriculum will display equally well on a smart phone, tablet, laptop, or even a Web-enabled TV. No need for a book or a three-ring binder: all you need is your smart phone (though the illustrations will be easier to show to kids on a bigger screen). Having the curriculum online should also make it much easier for teachers to let parents know what children are doing in Sunday school.

I would love to hear your comments and reactions to this curriculum.To look at the online version of this curriculum, go here.


An illustration from the curriculum:


A statue of Obatala, an orisha common to many of the Yoruba traditions. This statue was photographed in Costa do Sauipe, Bahia, Brazil. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons.

5 thoughts on “New upper elementary curriculum”

  1. Are you including actual Unitarian and/or Universalist theology –“Unitarianism is a theological movement, named for its understanding of God as one person, in direct contrast to Trinitarianism,..”
    Classical Unitarian theologitans from 16th – 19th century?
    Updating of these theological positions?

    Or, is Unitarian Universalism to remain a confused, empty “theology” that can only look at other religions
    for study?

    When will Unitarianism actually be the focus of the “Unitarian Universalist” theology?

    If never, why not change the name to something that encompasses the present multicultural, multireligionist, multigendered, multixyz and politically liberal stance?


  2. Joe, in order to address the questions raised in your comment, I have to begin by correcting some misconceptions.

    First, I don’t think your account of North American Unitarian theology is historically accurate, and your definition glosses over the nuance and complexity of the 18th and 19th century theological liberals who eventually came to be called “Unitarian.” What became known as Unitarianism in North America began as a reaction to the excesses of Calvinism, and particularly the doctrine of predestination. In their critique of the doctrine of predestination, the liberal contingent in 18th century New England, or “Arminians” as they were often known, moved towards a complex and nuanced theological position that included broader salvation, a softened understanding of original sin, wider scope for human free will, a modified theory of atonement, etc. Their theological opponents branded the liberals with the term “Unitarian” (which was meant to be a pejorative term). The liberals had been changing their views on the doctrine of the Trinity, so in that sense it was an apt term; but the entire theological argument was far more complex than that. Nevertheless, the liberal contingent embraced the term “Unitarianism.”

    By the way, you can find a good seven page summary of the theological emergence of North American “Unitarianism” in George Huntston Williams’s Foreword to Christology in American Unitarianism, Prescott Wintersteen (Boston: UU Christian Fellowship, 1977). I’ll quote one key paragraph from G. H. Williams’s Foreword here:

    “The ‘Arminian’ Congregationalists who thought of themselves in 1825, when they formed their first Association that was to eventuate in a full-fledged denomination (to be merged with the Unviersalists in the mid-twentieth century), as “Liberal Christians” (William Ellery Channing’s phrase), were not happy at first in being labeled ‘Arians’ and ‘Unitarians’ by the orthodox Trinitarian Congregational critics; but the schism in the Standing Order of Massachusetts trinitarian Congregationalists and unitarian Congregationalists, was by then already well underway.” [p. xiii]

    In other words, when today’s Unitarian Universalists look back on that period in our theological evolution, we tend to focus too much on the name “Unitarian” (even though it wasn’t really a name chosen by the liberals), and ignore the true complexity of the liberal theological position. This is what I think you have done. This is problematic because ignoring the full complexity of the theological argument gives a woefully incomplete notion of what “Unitarianism” was actually all about.

    I think you also make a mistake in skipping from c. 1825 to the present year — a mistake that, again, all too many of today’s Unitarian Universalists make. Gary Dorrien, in his definitive three volume history of liberal theology in America, indicates that by the mid-nineteenty century, quite a few Unitarians (by then they had accepted, if not embraced, that name) were moving towards what Dorrien characterizes as post-Christian positions. The complex theological evolution of Unitarianism continued into the late nineteenth and through the twentieth centuries. Today, we reduce that complexity to something like this: William Ellery Channing, Emerson, Free Religious Association, Humanism, hoorah! But the evolution of Unitarianism was by no means simple, nor was it some linear progression from Channing to Peter Morales (whom, by the way, I would not characterize as a particularly strong theologian).

    It’s also problematic to focus so narrowly on doctrinal questions when defining Unitarian Universalism. The scholar Ninian Smart has pointed out seven key dimensions of religion: doctrinal; mythological; ethical; ritual; experiential; institutional; and material. Mostly, when we Unitarian Universalists tell our history, we focus solely on the doctrinal dimension of religion (so characteristic of the Protestant bias!). Interestingly, if you look beyond the doctrinal dimension of religion, your argument that today’s Unitarian Universalism is discontinuous with historic North American Unitarianism is negated. Today’s Unitarian Universalism shows a great deal of continuity with the ethical, ritual, and institutional dimensions of Arminianism, and arguably significant continuity in the mythological and material dimensions as well. I would further argue that a more complete understanding of the doctrinal dimension than appears in your comment would also show substantial continuity between the two eras (e.g., continuity in understandings of free will and original sin, etc.). One of the key characteristics of Unitarianism from the beginning has been our openness to the insights of scholarship. Thus it would be very much true to our tradition to take seriously the insights of such scholars of religion as Ninian Smart. When we do so (true to our Unitarian heritage), we are forced to see Unitarianism, and Unitarian Universalism, more broadly than as a mere disavowal of the doctrine of the Trinity.

    I also think it’s incorrect to dismiss today’s Unitarian Universalism as grounded in “a confused, empty ‘theology’ that can only look at other religions.” Such a statement ignores such rich and nuanced Unitarian Universalist theologians as William R. Jones, Bernard Loomer, Paul Rasor, Charles Hartshorne, etc. If you read Jones’s Is God a White Racist?, Loomer’s The Size of God, Hartshorne’s Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, and Rasor’s Faith without Certainty,, you will find some of my background theological grounding for this curriculum. Some specific theological concepts I take from these books: the functional ultimacy of humankind from Jones; the problem of male bias in theology from Hartshorne; the collapse of meta-narrative and the loss of certainty from Rasor; and the complexities of religious naturalism from Loomer. Rasor’s book in particular will explain to you why today’s Unitarian Universalists have to study other religions — it’s a function of the world we live in. Having said that, Unitarian Sunday schools have been studying other religions for over a century, and from our earliest days our missionary work was more concerned with understanding other religious traditions and finding common ground with them, than with converting others to Unitarianism. Here again, I’m afraid your comment is lacking in historical perspective.

    One thing I learn from your comment is that there are many people who do not seem to know about comtempoaray Unitarian Universalist theologians; so I will take this as a polite suggestion to include more theological background for this curriculum. Of course I used other liberal theologians — Mark Heim’s Salvations and Rosemary Radford Reuther’s Gaia and God come to mind as relevant influences — and I can also add more background as to their influence on the curriculum. However, since this is to be one unit of a year-long curriculum, I think I will save that theological argument for the introduction to the complete year-long curriculum.

    I should also gently point out that although you mention Universalist theology in passing at the beginning of your comment, you focus primarily on the Unitarian side of Unitarian Universalist history, to the exclusion of Universalism. This may be part of the reason you don’t understand the theology behind what I’m doing — I’m pretty much of a Universalist. As a Universalist, that is, someone who believes that the ultimate destiny of humankind is happiness and holiness shared by all, I cannot escape the fact that Unitarian Universalists share the same destiny as Hindus, followers of Chinese popular religion, etc. How can I reconcile this with Mark Heim’s argument in Salvations (which is similar to Prothero’s argument cited in the curriculum introduction), that different religions are not merely different paths all headed to the same mountain peak — rather, they are different paths headed to completely different mountain peaks? I would say that salvation works on different levels: at least one level of salvation is the level of individual human worldviews, and at this level religions are in some sense utterly separate; at another level, call it “God’s level” or a level beyond human understanding, humankind does indeed share the same destiny (not a fully adequate explanation, but this is something that I’m working on). That being the case, from the viewpoint of Universalist theology, it is important to understand the differences between our religious worldview and that worldviews of other religions; at least in part because we’re all going to wind up at the same destination. (Also, from a pedagogical standpoint, comparing and contrasting one’s own religion with other religions is a great way to achieve a deeper understanding of one’s own religion.)

    I hope this answers your questions. At the very least, I hope this response will prompt you to read the four theological works I listed above, so that you can gain a better understanding of the true richness of contemporary Unitarian Universalist theology. Good luck!

  3. Thanks Dan for the well thought and researched reply.

    I know we will have a difference of opinion on some of these issues but here are some
    that, to me, continue to undermine the Unitarian and Universalist position as held by the UUA.

    “In other words, when today’s Unitarian Universalists look back on that period in our theological evolution, we tend to focus too much on the name “Unitarian” (even though it wasn’t really a name chosen by the liberals), and ignore the true complexity of the liberal theological position.”

    I don’t think there has been a “theological evolution” but rather a rejection of “theology” (“the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity) and a devolution from the once rich heritage. The one basic, fundamental concept that should be at the heart of “Unitarian Universalism”, by definition, should be that there is One God who will “Save” / “reconciled” all. If that is no longer held to be the assumed basic UUA belief (and it hasn’t been for a long time) then the name has lost all meaning.
    The UUA should, in my opinion, reformulate itself as a social advocacy entity and change its name.

    This statement encapsulates the “devolution” of theology:
    “Today, we reduce that complexity to something like this: William Ellery Channing, Emerson, Free Religious Association, Humanism, hoorah! But the evolution of Unitarianism was by no means simple, nor was it some linear progression from Channing to Peter Morales (whom, by the way, I would not characterize as a particularly strong theologian).”

    Charles Harshorne, the noted Process Theologian, still retained God.
    I think how we each consider and respond to God is individual but the basic statement should be part of the UU identity. I think Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt set and example in: The Faith of a Theist: There Must Be a God Somewhere
    “Most of the great Western theologians agree at least on this: God is beyond naming or full understanding, yet we human beings, created in God’s image, nonetheless are called to make the attempt. It is the free faith of Unitarian Universalism that makes my attempts worthwhile. Because of this faith, I can be confident that my search for the Divine is structured, not by static institutions or individuals, but by the God who continues to call me and whom I continue to question. Because of this powerful freedom to believe—and to doubt—I live in trust, believing all manner of things will be well.”

    I am not against studying and appreciating other faiths, but it seems they are pointed to as a substitute for the missing Unitarian and Universalist faith tradition…from Liberal Christianity to Deism. Our students are steeped in secular activities from sexuality to political activism. To me, the point of religious education should be to establish the fundamental beliefs and history of the chosen faith. Such education was still relevant until the early 20th century when the (in my opinion) great humanist damage was incurred. Today, all I see is political activism as a substitute or mistaking of being religion.

    I think this is one major reason the church is seen as a revolving door, donut hole church. There is no “there there” for families truly seeking a “liberal as in not fundamentalist” church that actually has a God oriented center. It explains why so many “UUs” are hyphenated…UU Jewish, UU Christian, UU Buddhist, UU Pagan etc….there is no UU other than a place where they meet and share similar secular, politcal action goals. Which by itself is another issue…the extreme bias and intolerance of those who have different positions.

    Anyway, any improvement by considering and exploring are rich historical and theological positions would be an improvement over the current IMHO mess of RE curriculum.


  4. Joe, to me, the real problem is not whether or not we have retained God — it’s the God we UUs mostly talk about, the God that some of us retain, and others reject. The real problem is that most Unitarian Universalists allow the simplistic Christian conservatives to define God for them. Obviously if, like many humanists, you believe that the only possibility for God is a being that is white, male, angry, and hates gays and women — well, I won’t accept such a God either. And honestly, if God is defined as narrowly as “God is one, who saves all” — well, I’m not going to going to be interested in spending time learning about that God — ultimately, that’s just as inadequate as the white, male, angry God. Such a God doesn’t even begin to address my concerns about ultimate reality, mystical experiences, the divinity of relationships (i.e., intersubjectivity) esp. across cultural and racial and gender lines, free will, God and evil, God and the looming environmental disaster, etc. etc.

    What a pale and lifeless conception of God it is that UU humanists and UU theists have been fighting over! Yet we have so many vibrant alternatives. In the mid-20th century, Hartshorne and Loomer and others went far beyond the old “God is one” argument to explore the size of God, the relationality of God, the changeability of God, etc. In the late 20th century, William R. Jones and others went far beyond the old “God saves everyone” argument to explore the liberative capacity of God here in this world, the justice-making abilities of God, etc. And Paul Rasor has asked us to confront what it means to be part of a postmodern culture that is questioning the value of rationality, and in which a myriad of different cultures and worldviews are living cheek by jowl and encountering each other and cross-fertilizing in ways that maybe we haven’t seen since the early days of Christianity in the old Roman empire.

    Turning to the RE curriculum guides used in many UU Sunday schools, I find that a number of them have real theological depth. “Jesus and the Kingdom of Equals,” published by the Jesus Seminar folks, is an excellent approach to exploring the nature of Jesus. Marianne Moore’s “God Images” and “Stories about God” present a pretty sophisticated an nuanced version of feminist theology (a little dated now, but still pretty good). My own “Beginnings” curriculum is grounded in the theological reality that in a postmodern multicultural world one way we understand oursevles is in contrast to others — and it also makes the point that while persons with multireligious outlooks (e.g., “UU Buddhist,” “Jewish Christian,” etc.) are now common in the postmodern world, various religious traditions have different goals, with the important implication that such persons are holding two irreconcilable religious conceptions within themselves (how postmodern!).

    We can’t go back to late 18th century Enlightenment definitions and arguments about God in order to address our contemporary theological crisis (or to create better curriculum). Besides, contemporary theology is far more exciting than clinging to the Enlightenment! I know it’s too much to ask anyone to read a bunch of theology — but it’s so exciting to read Loomer and Jones and Hartshorne and Rasor — and Rosemary Radford Reuther, and Gulley and Mulholland on Universalism, and Gustavo Gutierrez, and Stanley Hauerwas, and Gordon Kaufman, and Anthony Pinn — and find out that liberal theology continues to evolve and expand and lead one’s mind and soul to greater depths of understanding.

  5. Interesting to note that Hauerwas is a Christian. That God talk seems important to him:
    Stanley Hauerwas
    Professor of Theological Ethics, Duke Divinity School
    The Surprise of Being a Christian
    Posted: 06/03/10 01:00 PM ET

    Thanks for the list of theologians to look up. Several are not my cup of tea…liberation theology, humanism, black theology etc. Too much political socialism / communism wrapped up in those individuals.

    Kaufman said “He argued for a vision of God as the “profound mystery of creativity,” the “ongoing creativity in the universe.” More of that God talk.

    At least process theologians retain God vs the humanist who are almost always atheists.

    Rejecting the lessons and richness of our past is a great mistake. Being in love with moderns who often fail to understand they are exploring ideas already explored is a hazard. Keep the best and grow rather than off handedly reject what came before.

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