Tag Archives: liberation theologies

Today’s lesson plan on Ferguson

Here’s today’s lesson plan, as taught in the summer Sunday school program at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), Calif. We had about a dozen children in gr. K-8. The lesson plan was written to engage the older children (gr. 5-8), in the expectation that the younger kids would do their best to follow the lead of the older kids; this worked quite well, so even though the conversation was over the heads of the kindergarteners, they followed along as best they could, and at least understood that we were talking about something very important.

One unexpected benefit of this lesson plan: While most of the children knew what “Ferguson” was, they were pretty hazy on the details of the events of August 9, 2014. Going over the story three different times helped reinforce details of that day in their memory.

Lesson plan
Credits
Goals and objectives
Theological background
Notes and resources
Thoughts for teachers
Why isn’t —— in this lesson plan?

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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. Continue reading

William R. Jones: a brief appreciation

While on vacation, I missed the death of Rev. Dr. William R. Jones, who died on July 17 at age 78; commenter Dan Gerson drew my attention to that fact today. Jones was the pre-eminent Unitarian Universalist humanist theologian of the past fifty years, one of the handful of truly important Unitarian Universalist theologians of any kind from the past half century, and arguably the best Unitarian Universalist thinker on anti-racism.

Jones is a major figure who deserves a full critical biography, which I am not competent to write. But here is an all-too-brief overview of his life and work:

Education and ministry

William Ronald Jones was born in 1933. He received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Howard University. He earned his Master of Divinity at Harvard University in 1958, and was ordained and fellowshipped as a Unitarian Universalist minister in that year. He served from 1958-1960 at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Providence, Rhode Island. Mark Morrison-Reed states that Jones served at First Unitarian as assistant minister (Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, p. 139), but the UUA Web site states that he served at Church of the Mediator as “minister”; I’m inclined to believe Mark’s book, as the UUA listings of ministers are prone to error.

After a two-year stint as a minister, Jones went on to do doctoral work in religious studies at Brown University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1969. His dissertation was titled “On Sartre’s Critical Methodology,” which discussed “Jean-Paul Sartre‚Äôs philosophical anthropology” (Lewis R. Gordon, An Introduction to Africana Philosophy [Cambridge University, 2008], p. 171).

As you can see, Jones quickly moved from the parish to the academy. Of course he was well suited to the academy because of his intellectual abilities, but also there is little doubt that there were few doors open for African American ministers looking for Unitarian Universalist pulpits in the 1960s.

The years at Yale

After receiving his Ph.D., Jones was an assistant professor at Yale Divinity School from 1969 to 1977. It was while he was at Yale that he gained renown as a Black theologian with a unique take on the issue of theodicy. Continue reading

Gary Dorrien on the Occupiers

Christian Century magazine interviews social ethicist Gary Dorrien on the Occupy Wall Street movement. The interview is a promotional piece for an essay by Dorrien in the latest issue of Christian Century, but it’s worth reading on its own. Best bit from the interview:

As a social ethicist whose field was invented by the Social Gospel movement, I treasure the Social Gospel’s emphasis on just distribution and the common good, along with Reinhold Niebuhr’s realist emphasis on power politics and the faults of liberal idealism. But liberationist criticism adjudicates what I take from the Social Gospel and Niebuhrian traditions. Social justice must not be reduced to concerns about the fair distribution of things. It is also about giving voice to oppressed communities and being liberated from structures of oppression and dependency.

Read the interview.

Is there a Unitarian Universalist “preferential option for the poor”?

I’m wondering why people join Unitarian Universalist congregations. Do we join in order to find a posse to help us further our existing social justice commitments? Do we join in order to help us stay in our current jobs, and maybe get better jobs? In other words, do we join in order to meet our own needs?

I’m a fan of liberation theologies. Liberation theologies talk about a preferential option for persons who don’t have as much power as the rest of the world. So Latin American liberation theologies talked about a preferential option for the poor: the purpose of religious communities was to live out Jesus’s consistent teachings to help people who were poor. Feminist liberation theologies say that religion communities must recognize that women and girls are as fully human as men and should be treated as such. And so on through black liberation theologies, queer liberation theologies, etc., etc.

Why have a preferential option for the poor? In liberation theology’s terms, the preferential option of the poor is how a religious community can begin to establish the Kingdom of Heaven, whether you believe the Kingdom of Heaven is something that’s here on earth waiting to burst out into reality if we give it a chance, or whether it is a reward that awaits you after death.

We can contrast liberation theologies with prosperity spirituality, which is “characterized by the doctrine that God desires Christians to be prosperous.” (William Kay, “Prosperity Spirituality,” in New Religions: A Guide, ed. Christopher Partridge [Oxford University: 2004], p. 91). Prosperity spirituality is designed to appeal to those who find the prospects for the future to be bleak and who don’t want to wait until the afterlife to enjoy the rewards of religion. Oral Roberts was the first great purveyor of prosperity spirituality.

Unitarian Universalism, and liberal religion more generally, strike me as being much closer to prosperity spirituality than to liberation theology. Many Unitarian Universalists are skeptical about heaven, and the rest are probably more concerned with getting heaven into people now, than in getting people into heaven later (to paraphrase John Corrado). Either way, we’re more concerned with how we can make our lives better, than we are in how we can enjoy the rewards of the afterlife. To my mind, this has pushed us into a kind of prosperity spirituality: Join our congregation because your life will be better due to improved mental and emotional health — join our congregation and do social justice to others which will make you feel better about yourself.

Sure, I’m exaggerating and engaging in polemic (as usual). But I also think I’m right: we Unitarian Universalists are far more likely to engage in our form of prosperity spirituality than we are to believe in a preferential option for the poor.

Humanism and liberationist theologies

In a recent comment on a post I wrote about Cornel West, Kim Hampton makes a statement that I quite agree with:

I agree that the biggest reason that West is not talked about [among Unitarian Universalists] is the fact that he speaks from a liberationist standpoint … but I think you may be downplaying the fact part of the reason he is such a liberationist is that he is a forthright Christian. And Unitarian Universalism is still trying to figure out its relationship to Christianity.

This raises another interesting issue for me. In the contemporary theological landscape, socialism is almost exclusively associated with either a Christian liberationist theology perspective (e.g., Cornel West), or a Neo-pagan liberationist theology perspective (e.g., Starhawk). Humanists, by contrast, tend to be associated with a more moderate political philosophy. So humanist William Schulz, former director of Amnesty International, sounds like pretty straightforward natural-law human rights advocate and political liberal; and humanist Sharon Welch, ethicist and theologian, sounds to me like a pretty straightforward second-wave feminist and political liberal. Of put it this way: while I can think of some prominent Christians and Neo-pagans whom I would call socialists or leftist councilists, all the prominent humanists I know of seem to accept late capitalism without making a serious challenge to it.

In addition, it seems to me that much of humanist dialogue in recent years — at least, among the humanists I know — has largely divorced theology and religion from social justice theories. This is not to say that humanists aren’t concerned with social justice; indeed, the opposite is true in my experience, as the humanists I know tend to be strongly committed to social justice and political action. But most of the humanists I know seem to remove ethics from religion, and their theology focuses on ontotheology almost exclusively. Sharon Welch is an excellent example of this: over the years, the trend she has followed has been to remove explicit religious concerns from her ethics, to the point where I would not longer call her a theologian and instead I’d call her simply an ethicist (without a qualifier).

Any thoughts on this from you, dear reader? I’m willing to hear counterexamples that disprove my hypothesis, but I’m far more interested in a broader analysis: are humanists tending to move to the political right of socialist Christians and Neo-pagans? and is there something inherent in the trend of humanist thought today that is moving humanism in that direction? and aside from William R. Jones, is there such a thing as a liberationist humanist thinker?

Cornel West and us

I’ve just been reading historian Gary Dorrien’s essay “Pragmatic Postmodern Prophecy,” which discusses Cornel West as an intellectual and as a religious leader. (This essay, from Dorrien’s 2010 book Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice, is an updated version of a chapter from his 2008 book Social Ethics in the Making.)

Dorrien tells the story of West’s intellectual evolution, and his evolution as a public intellectual. Dorrien also gives succinct reviews of major critiques of West. Towards the end of the essay, Dorrien summarizes West, casting him as primarily a religious thinker:

He [West] never really changed, notwithstanding the Left critics who liked his early writings and claimed that he sold out later. From the beginning West was committed to a Christian liberationist vision of social justice and reconciliation, though some readers wrongly took his early writings to be Marxism dressed up as Christian though. West was not “really” a Marxist who used Christianity; it was more the other way around. He began as a liberationist social critic committed to building progressive multiracial coalitions, and he remained one. (p. 334)

I’ve never quite understood why Unitarian Universalists (and other religious liberals, for that matter) don’t spend much time thinking about West, but Dorrien’s summary helps me understand why so few of us seem to bother with West. It’s not his forthright Christianity; for although some Unitarian Universalists might be uncomfortable with West’s trinitarian Christianity, our own humanist theologian William R. Jones showed us back in 1974 how liberal “humanocentric” theists and liberal humanists have plenty in common, or at least enough to build alliances to fight oppression together.

Instead, I think it’s because West is firmly aligned with liberationist Christian theology, while we Unitarian Universalists mostly remain aligned with the old Social Gospel. West is a Christian socialist who’s not afraid of revolutionary ideas, not afraid of taking risks that don’t always work out, and he’s committed to rapid change. The Social Gospel, as it exists today, still uses liberal but not revolutionary ideas, plays down risk, and works towards slower evolutionary change. Unitarian Universalism (and many other liberal religious groups) are not going to be comfortable with West because his theology is further to the left than we are comfortable with. Unfortunately, this means we have cut ourselves off to some extent from one of the few religious progressives who is a public intellectual, someone who has engaged both the academics and the broader public in conversations about progressive religion.

I’ve long been interested in West because in my view he’s the most prominent intellectual still working in the long tradition of American pragmatism that stretches back to Emerson, Peirce, and Dewey. All of us who are American religious liberals really should have some understanding of the pragmatist tradition, since it has been so influential for our religious tradition. So I wonder if we could think about West as a sort of successor to Emerson: a public intellectual who writes essays that are both popular and deeply thoughtful — and on that basis, we might think of taking his theology seriously, even if we don’t quite agree with it.