Theology deadlock

One of the things I see as I watch the slow-motion train wreck that is the budget deadlock in Congress is a battle between two competing theologies.

These two competing theologies have, above all, differing notions of sin and salvation (soteriology):

On the one side, the possibility of salvation is understood to reside primarily in individual humans. To put it another way, fighting sin is primarily the responsibility of an individual. The way to fight sin, and move towards salvation, is to assign the highest level of responsibility to individuals. This theological position tends to deplore government intervention in social problems, such as providing health insurance; thus in the context of this theological position, individuals, not impersonal social structures, are ultimately responsible for saving themselves and, e.g., taking care of their own health.

On the other side, the possibility of salvation is understood to reside both in the individual and in social institutions; however, in practice the emphasis tends to be on social salvation and social sin, since social sin is perceived to be so much more powerful a force than individual sin. To put it another way, fighting sin is primarily a battle that must be fought in social institutions. The way to move towards salvation is to assign the highest priority to fighting sin in society. This theological position tends to urge governmental solutions to social problems; thus in the context of this theological position, individuals are not powerful enough in themselves to fight social sin, and must use social structures such as government to fight sin and reach salvation by establishing a moral society.

These two different theological positions also have differing understandings of the nature of human beings (theological anthropology): Continue reading “Theology deadlock”

Free will and wickedness

Historically, religious liberals have affirmed the presence of free will in humans. For example, Unitarians reacted against the predestination of Calvinism by affirming that humans could choose whether or not to do good, and their choice would affect whether or not they would go to heaven; and, being optimistic folks, chose to believe that humans would mostly choose to do good. In another example, Universalists reacted against Calvinism by declaring that all humans would get to go to heaven — a kind of radical predestination, or determinism, if you think about it — but nevertheless here in this life humans still have the capacity to choose goodness or wickedness; and some Universalists also affirmed that those humans who chose wickedness while alive would undergo a limited period of punishment after death. The details may vary, but religious liberals have long affirmed that humans could chose freely between goodness and wickedness.

During the Social Gospel era, religious liberals came to understand that wickedness could exist outside of the individual in social structures and wider society; sometimes humans do wicked things not because they freely chose to do those wicked things but because they were embedded in a social structure that was wicked. However, the Social Gospelers had no intention of doing away with the possibility of individual wickedness; they merely wished to point out another possible locus of wickedness; they pointed out that there is even more wickedness in the world than we had previously thought before.

Under the influence of the Social Gospel, and later the influence of humanistic psychology, and then liberation theologies, we religious liberals have become increasingly aware of the wickednesses that exist in society. We have been so attentive to social wickedness that we sometimes neglect the possibility for individual wickedness. But wickedness must still exist in individual humans: as long as we affirm a belief in in free will, we humans will have the option, as individuals, to be wicked.

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.

Reluctantly re-examining personal sin

I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.

Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.

As a Social Gospeler who doesn’t think much about personal sin, I am tempted to explain away the actions of these small-minded people using the concepts of popular psychology: they must have something bad going on elsewhere in their lives to make them act this way, or perhaps they had troubled childhoods. As a twenty-first century Social Gospeler, I am especially prone to use the psychology of family systems theory: the problem lies, not in the individual, but in the social system that allows such behavior. But psychology is designed to explain why persons behave the way they behave; psychology does not make moral judgments, it does not say when something is good and right, or bad and wrong; psychology is not a substitute for morals and ethics.

I’m extremely reluctant to re-introduce the concept of personal sin into my religious life. I’m quite comfortable talking about the sins of society. I’m quite comfortable talking about evil, which I think of as those dark forces outside of us, and in some sense outside our control, that can force us to do things that are bad. Besides, the word “sin” has been so badly misused by so many people in our society that it’s almost unusable in ordinary conversation. Yet my friend really was sinned against; I was perfectly willing to agree that those small-minded people sinned when they made my friend’s life miserable.

What do you think? As a religious liberal, do you think about personal sin, or not? How do you define personal sin? I’d love to hear your thoughts.