UNCO 14 West day one

The theory behind an unconference: some of the most interesting conversations take place in the times between the formal sessions. The reality of an unconference: some of the most interesting conversations take place in the times when nothing is scheduled.

At dinner tonight, I wound up talking to Jeff and Amy who have started Sanctuary for the Arts in Oakland. They offer monthly kinesthetic arts-filled worship services, based in part on InterPlay improvisational movement. I wound up talking to Amy about her theological grounding for movement-based worship services. She found theological grounding in process theology (in the sense that creativity is co-creation, that it is with our hands that God creates), in feminist theology (in the sense that worship cannot be in the head alone, it must be fully embodied), and also in post-colonial and queer theologies (in the sense that bodies which have been subjugated and colonized can be decolonized).

And during the social hour after dinner, I talked with J.C., a Disciples of Christ minister. The Disciples of Christ, like the Unitarian Universalists, refuse to have creeds, and last year J.C. and I talked a little about our common non-creedalism. J.C. talked about how the German Confessing Church had to define what it meant to be a Christian, not in the sense of having a creed, but in the sense of being able to stand up against evil in the world. We both agreed that our non-creedal faiths could be so reluctant to adopt anything that sounded like a creed, that we went so far as to not adequately define what our religion stands for (or stands against, for that matter). I can’t comment on the struggles that the Disciples have in this matter, but in our own quest for non-creadalism we Unitarian Universalists have too often equated religion with politics, or with inadequate an inadequate profession of faith.

Some excellent, thought-provoking conversations. This is why we go to unconferences.

Defining religious liberals

Recently, I was trying to explain to another person (this is someone who belongs to a liberal denomination) that some evangelical Christians are impossible to distinguish from religious liberals. This other person found my assertion difficult to believe. I realized that most of us tend to define religious liberalism by denominational boundaries: if you are in a United Church of Christ congregation, or a Reform Jewish congregation, you are a religious liberal; if you’re part of an evangelical congregation, you can’t possibly be a religious liberal. But denominational boundaries began eroding a long time ago, and that old definition no longer works particularly well.

Here’s another possible definition for religious liberal: A religious liberal is someone who is flexible about theological or ideological matters, who instead is more concerned with living out his or her values in the wider world, and who is willing to make adjustments to his or her theology in order to make the world a better place. By contrast, a religious conservative is someone who is most concerned with theological purity or purity of religious ideology, and not social justice.

By this definition, evangelical Christian Richard Ciszik, former staffer for the National Association of Evangelicals, is a religious liberal because he is more committed to “creation care” or environmentalism than he is to religious ideology. Richard Dawkins, by contrast, comes across as a religious conservative, a humanist who demands ideological purity even if he alienates other religious groups to the extent that he greatly reduces his chances of working with them to solve real-world problems.

Or to put it another way: I’d much rather work with Richard Cisik on social justice issues than with Richard Dawkins; actually, I suspect Richard Dawkins would never condescend to work with someone like me on anything because I wouldn’t pass his test of ideological purity.

Moving away from the humanist-theist debate

Tonight Amy Zucker Morgenstern, the senior minister at the Palo Alto church, and I led a class on humanism, theism, and naturalism, part of a series of classes we’re doing on current issues in liberal religion. We each began with a presentation on the topic; the text of my presentation is below. Our presentations were followed by a lively and enjoyable conversation with the 14 people who came, a conversation that ranged from metaphysics to demographics.

When Amy and I started talking about this class, I knew right away what I wanted to talk about: I wanted to talk about religious naturalism. I wanted to talk about religious naturalism because at the moment it is the only theological “ism” that I have any interest in associating with.

The reason I wanted to talk about religious naturalism is because in my experience it is the only theological position within Unitarian Universalism that doesn’t by definition shut out one or more other theological positions. Humanists and theists each want to shut the other group out, even force the other group out. Humanists and christian theists want to keep those doggone pagans out, and pagans, given half a chance, would shut out the humanists and christian theists. The Buddhists sit there smiling smugly at everyone else as if they have the real answers, and they’re willing to tolerate us until such a time that the rest of us get with their program. And so on.

This is all very fine and good. I like a good knock-down, drag-out argument as much as anyone. (Though I will admit I prefer theological bar fights to what academic theologians do — that is, I prefer an out-and-out fight with shouting, throwing of bar stools, and fisticuffs, to the refined intellectual backstabbing that is too often characteristic of the academy.) In fact, I think arguments are a lot of fun, as long as those who are involved are all basically healthy, and all basically want to get involved in the fight. Continue reading “Moving away from the humanist-theist debate”