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Sunday, June 1, 2003

We must not postulate simplicity.

I think I'll start a bit of running commentary on Alfred North Whitehead, my favorite philosopher. And since Unitarian Universalists are currently discussing religious language, I'll start with a passage from Whitehead's essay "The New Reformation" in Adventures of Ideas:

So far as concerns religious problems, simple solutions are bogus solutions. . . .
For religion is concerned with our reactions of purpose and emotion due to our personal measure of intuition into the ultimate mystery of the universe. We must not postulate simplicity. The witness of history and of common sense tells us that systematic formulations are potent engines of emphasis, of purification, and of stability. . . .
Thus the attacks of the liberal clergy and laymen, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, upon systematic theology was entirely misconceived. They were throwing away the chief safeguard against the wild emotions of superstition.

Several themes are apparent here. First, religion cannot be reduced to ethics. Religion is not simply "what should we do?" but "how shall we respond to the ultimate mystery?" I think this is what Bill Sinkford finds inadequate in the UUA's Seven Principles — which are, after all, agreements only on the shared goals of the Association, not assertions about the nature of things. A call for a "vocabulary of reverence" is a call for sustained attention to religious motivations and intuitions.

And this is where Whitehead's second theme becomes important: Religious response, without critical formulation, degenerates very quickly into superstition. (The vogue for spiritualism among nineteenth-century Unitarians and Universalists strikes me as an example of what happens to liberal religion when it prefers intution entirely over rational reflection.) But Whitehead's third theme — that "simple solutions are bogus solutions" — is a reminder that the quest for a lowest common denominator is a terrible approach to take in theology.

What Unitarian Universalism needs isn't traditional religious language tossed into the Principles like croutons in a salad. The Principles seem just fine to me: they are simply statements about goals. But liberal congregations do need to think about their own local covenants, and about the themes and priorities of their worship services and their public witness. There's still a lot of mileage in the old Unitarian covenants, "We unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind," a statement that links mystery to ethics and tradition to modern problems without seeking definitional clarity — which is, after all, a never-ending task that belongs to each person. The liberal church has no authority to define the terms of the solutions for people, but it can help identify the problems. More later . . . I have to go to church!

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 1 June 2003 at 10:45 AM

Previous: Emerson watch.
Next: Modern theology 101.

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