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Thursday, November 21, 2002

Dogma and liberal doctrine.

Steve F. writes:

Sometimes the same word has different meanings for different people, but shouldn't the national UU define those terms so that they can be used by all UU local groups?

The "national UU" has no authority to define terms like this. Trying to define the terms would be an act of dogmatic overreach — it would be an attempt to close down a conversation by an arbitrary authority. No one in the liberal tradition has that kind of authority.

Our tradition deals with doctrine differently. We are not and never have been anti-doctrinal: We know that what we believe matters, and that our principles come to life through our actions, and that we stand for some things rather than others. The difference is that we are willing to keep an argument going about our doctrines because we acknowledge that our opinions are partial and open to correction. We argue about definitions, believing that this process yields greater value than claiming to have the definition nailed down.

An example: Many decades ago, a denominational committee studied the theological trends in the Unitarian movement and concluded that Unitarians agreed consistently on a number of theological issues, but also disagreed on a number of others. The committee pointed out that the disagreements were just as central to who Unitarians were as the agreements. (We're the church that argues about how central God is to faith, for example, with many of us — even in the 1940s — arguing that the concept is not central.) The committee made a novel suggestion: Unitarians ought to publically state their agreed-upon doctrines and their unresolved doctrines. No other tradition could do that: Here's a church (sorry) that knows which issues are important enough not to have a settled dogma about.

Steve asks: "Are we avoiding asking some tough questions?" Yes, I think many Unitarian Universalists have avoided talking about fundamental religious issues — about doctrine — because we have an understandable fear of dogmatism. But I also think we are hungry for a conversation about these very issues. We want to talk about what we believe. But we also want to talk in a way that doesn't condemn points of view too quickly. We value doubt, questions, and exploration as real virtues of a liberal faith. We need models of theological and religious conversation that take important questions seriously, but that don't tell people that they must claim to believe things that they cannot believe.

Steve also commented: "How do we call ourselves inclusive of all belief systems while having no local UU groups called synagogues or mosques, only some called churches? Is this not bias?"

Unitarian Universalism is not "inclusive of all belief systems." We're not the "meta-religion," the religion that includes all others. How could we be? David Rankin once said that UUs tend to believe that "all religions, in every age and culture, possess not only an intrinsic merit, but also a potential value for those who have learned the art of listening." There's an important difference here.

We are people who are trying to learn the art of listening. That's very different than trying to be a minisociety of the world's religions. (It's also different from being people who know that we are right and everyone else is wrong.) We see each tradition as having real human merit — of being an expression of profound human concerns, which makes them interesting to us — but this is very different from agreeing with all of their claims, or valuing their modes of life equally.

Our tradition has fuzzy borders, to be sure, but they are there. They shape the doctrines and values that we use to interpret the world and our place in it. The fact is that our religious culture is overwhelmingly shaped by the liberal Protestant Christian experience in North America. In a way, we're the heirs of the branch of Christianity that first chose to listen to the other traditions, and to be changed in the process. Transcendentalism and then religious humanism grew out of that openness. Religious humanism made a place especially for humanistic Jews and people in interfaith marriages. But it would be self-deceiving to disregard the tradition's evolution or roots: we don't get to pick our parents, and we don't get to invent Unitarian Universalism's history.

Congregations shape their own identity, and congregations choose to be part of the UUA. Local congregations are not franchises of a brand; the Association is the made by the congregations, not the other way around. The UUA can't tell them who to be or how to define themselves. Each congregation decides whether it is a church; the UUA has nothing legitimate to say about it.

(Originally posted to UUCommunity.)

Copyright © 2002 by Philocrites | Posted 21 November 2002 at 11:34 PM

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