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 “William R. Jones: a brief appreciation”

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.