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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Does Unitarianism require unitarianism?

I'm elevating a comment Matthew Gatheringwater posted to my Guide to UU Blogs last week so we can discuss it in its own place. Matthew, responding to my friend Adam Tierney-Eliot's church, where Unitarian Universalists and trinitarian Congregationlists worship together, writes:

By coincidence, I've just read an article about your friend.

In it, he says something interesting to me: "'The majority of our members would describe themselves as being Christian,'" he says. 'Whether it's Trinitarian Christianity, or not, doesn't particularly play into our lives as a congregation.'"

Why do you think something that was important enough to fuel the Unitarian Controversy is now so unimportant as to be irrelevant to the lives of these (and I'd suppose many other) parishioners? Was Channing just wasting his time?

As a non-theist, it is not so very important to me whether the Christian God is imagined as one person or three, but Channing's Unitarian Christianity is still important to me because it represents a method of liberal religion I practice and hope to share. Liberal religionists don't believe something just because it is traditional, or convenient, or beautiful. We, like Channing, take seriously the Biblical admonition, "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." To speak of Unitarian and Trinitarian theologies as irrelevant or somehow equivalent is to ignore not only centuries of struggle for the freedom to believe what we know to be true (and the freedom to not believe what we do not know is true), but also the lives of the people martyred for that cause. If proponents of unitarian theology have survived persecution, torture, execution, imprisonment, and communist suppression, what has happened to now make unitarianism irrelevant even to people who claim its name?

From my vantage point in a Unitarian Universalist seminary, I'd have to say that your friend's view of Unitarianism is not unusual. Even here, Unitarianism can be hard to find. I've been thinking about that a lot this week, a grieving over it, too. It seems to me I became a Unitarian and came to seminary because I worship truth but, when I got to Meadville Lombard, I was told I was worshipping the wrong god. Here, we are taught that Unitarian Universalists worship love. That is an entirely different religion!

I'm sure Adam will have plenty to say in response, but I'll add a word or two myself. First, the "Unitarian Controversy" was precipitated by conservatives who believed it was illegitimate for Christian ministers not to preach the doctrine of the Trinity. The liberals did not seek separation from their more conservative fellow church members and brother ministers; they believed it was perfectly possible for trinitarians and unitarians to be good Christians together. Channing even resisted the efforts that led to the formation of the American Unitarian Association because it struck him as "sectarian." So I think it is historically misleading to say that Channing and his peers were rallying to "unitarianism" when I think one can more successfully make the case that they were rallying to a liberal and broad-minded Christianity.

Second, Channing's method, which emphasized the rational and moral interpretation of scripture, is indeed a more important legacy than specific theological conclusions. In his own day, using the intellectual and religious resources available to him, he couldn't see how the doctrine of the Trinity — as it was being taught and used — was either moral or rational, and therefore he concluded that a belief in the Trinity was not a requirement of Christian faith. But is it especially more moral and rational today to reject all versions of the Trinity and to embrace a nineteenth-century doctrine of Divine Unity, simply because William Ellery Channing did? I can't see why it would be.

At King's Chapel in Boston, the idiosyncratic Anglican church which removed the Trinitarian doxology from its Book of Common Prayer in 1784, the aim was not to insist on unitarianism. Instead, the impulse was to purge non-scriptural doctrines from the worship so that Christians who held different theological opinions on matters that scripture left vague could worship together. The outcome, of course, was that most Christians who regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as a central element of the faith went elsewhere. But the impulse — to bring together people with diverse conceptualizations of their faith using worship language that could speak to all of them — remains a strong impulse in modern liberal religion.

"Trinitarianism" was, for the early Unitarians, at least partially a word for the ability of custodians of doctrinal orthodoxy to exclude people from the church. In much of mainline Protestantism in the United States today, the doctrine of the Trinity does not function this way. Certainly in the United Church of Christ — the denomination Adam's church is dually affiliated with — a Trinitarian is unlikely to imagine using the doctrine to chase Unitarians out the door.

Just as "Trinitarianism" served as a euphemism for arbitrary religious dogmatism, "Unitarianism" has been a euphemism for theological liberalism. Matthew, when you say that Unitarianism is hard to find in modern-day Unitarian Universalism (while nevertheless acknowledging that you are not a theist at all), are you expressing a yearning for a doctrine? Or are you wondering what happened to a dynamic and a method that you recognize in Channing? I suspect, although I'm not sure, that it's not the unipersonality of the deity that has a hold on your religious imagination.

It is simply the case that many Christians — and many Unitarian Universalists — do not find much meaning in the contested definitions of the nature of the godhead. Trinity or Unity? Frankly, many people do not care that much. Perhaps they should. But I suspect it is very possible to revere and find great meaning in Channing's work without agreeing with every one of his theological conclusions.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 13 July 2004 at 6:20 PM

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