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Saturday, July 17, 2004

Theological diversity watch.

Surprise! The UUA's Commission on Appraisal is in the news! The Boston Globe's Rich Barlow interviews Earl Holt, minister of King's Chapel and chair of the Commission. The article asks, "Has the Unitarian Universalist church, renowned for its diversity of religious viewpoints, gone too far in pursuing diversity?"

Holt honors the freedom of conscience that remained a tenet after Unitarians merged with the Universalist Church to form the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961. And yet, he said, "I'm ready to defend now the hypothesis that Unitarian Universalism as it presently exists is not in any meaningful way . . . a continuity of either of the traditions" from which it sprung. Embracing all theological viewpoints — "at some point, pandering would not become too strong a word" — the UUA has lost the sense of unity that underlies community, Holt argues.

He heads the nine-member Commission on Appraisal, which reports every four years to the church's annual meeting on important issues. In its next report, due next year, Holt hopes the commission calls on the UUA to reexamine its statement of Principles and Purposes. That statement cites Jewish and Christian teachings, among a half-dozen influences.

"Any average Rotary club in America could probably affirm [them]," Holt said.

He'd like the church to stress that "this was a biblically centered faith, and that from that anchor . . . it has sought to be as open as possible" to other forms of inquiry.

Failing that, a statement that the UUA simply isn't Christian anymore "might be a cleansing thing to do," he said, acknowledging that few other commissioners share his view that the church should orbit within Christianity's gravity.

The article also quotes Tom Owen-Towle (another Commission member) and a good portion of UUA President Bill Sinkford's sermon in which he describes his own spiritual awakening to the presence of God. ("Revisiting Unitarian Universalism," Rich Barlow, Boston Globe 7.17.04)

The question of how meaningfully contemporary Unitarian Universalists relate their religion to the tradition from which it emerged preoccupied me all the way through four years of divinity school. Frankly, we need much better narratives about our own evolution. The advanced supercessionism we like — the narrative of smart upstarts throwing off the benighted superstitions of their predecessors — has limited usefulness in eliciting lifelong commitments. It works much better as a myth of heroic exile for those of us who are arriving from other faith traditions. It manifestly fails to help us encounter contemporary Christianity with any real capacity for appreciation or dialogue. We have become effectively anti-historical, believing that our parent traditions were frozen in amber when the heroic upstarts we revere — Emerson, Parker, Reese, Dietrich — broke away.

Although I'd like to say that I have some really fresh solution to the problem, my most thorough effort is a lumbering paper I wrote at the end of my first year of seminary. It's an attempt to outline a doctrine of the liberal church. Perhaps by the time the Commission's report is finally published, I will have time to work through an essay that is more fully developed and written in straightforward English!

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 17 July 2004 at 6:34 PM

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Next: Deliberate failure.





July 18, 2004 03:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was about to say that we have an Exodus narrative (and that that should be plenty), but then I realized we have little of that story's liberation (except in some abstract sense). Then I was going to say we have an Exile narrative, but I realized we do very little sitting by the waters of Babylon and weeping.

I hope we're not Job's friends, sitting around the campfire giving bad advice (in a fair and democratic manner, of course).


July 20, 2004 09:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

Oh no, here we go again. Let’s look back! NOT! Like Thoreau, we need original thinkers whose visions explore, not the Past as a solutions, but looks to the future while appreciating where we come from. Most of the UU’s I associate with are humanist and agnostics. Does the national Association realize that many UU's, including myself, will strongly reject "going back", the trend in the Post-Modernist age. Diversity is not an issue in my congregation, but it seems to be an obsession with the National Association. To much Diversity? My stars, what is going on, that the National would utter such a thing. This is one reason, I am thinking of reverting my membership from a “member” to a “friend”. If the President wants to believe there is a deity out there so be it. It is his personal choice. His Vocabulary of reverence is a re-cycle of the past. Why not invent a new Vocabulary of Reverence, not solely dependent on a theist out look.

Why is it hard for humans to develop a philosophy of life that doesn't resort to a deity. Hope and Faith are not dependent on gods? I


July 20, 2004 09:17 AM | Permalink for this comment

There's no "National" move, and it would be a mistake I think to interpret Earl's comments, or the Commission's study, or even Bill Sinkford's personal faith as a move toward the past.

But I'll agree with one thing Why said: We do need "original thinkers." At least of few of those original thinkers need to offer fresh ways of relating who we are now to who the Unitarians and Universalists once were.

Doug Muder:

July 20, 2004 01:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Creedlessness is a valuable part of our tradition that we explain very badly. Being non-credal is a positive choice, not a "Watch This Space" sign.

Holt seems to have noticed that the Principles aren't a good creed. Creeds are supposed to define who's in and who's out. (That's why Christian churches started reciting them: to make heretics perjure themselves.) So if "any average Rotary club" can affirm your creed, it's not doing its job of keeping out the infidels.

But the Principles aren't supposed to be a creed. UUism is covenantal, not credal. We don't look out at the world and affirm that we see the same things, we look at each other and make commitments. That's a choice, not a flaw, and I don't want to see it "fixed" by producing a new set of Principles that will make a better creed.

Derek Parker:

July 21, 2004 09:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

-Fascinating that so many people are worried about "going back". What they fail to realize is that for some of us who came to the UUA from the outside, we came looking for a church that was Unitarian or Universalist in the theological sense of those words (monotheistic and universal salvation). This is our present, but we are told we are stuck in the past. Non-theism is supposedly mature, and we are not, and if we try to include ourselves in the mix (in any way that has substance) we are told we are being exclusive.

It increasingly seems to me that mainstream UUism is rather arrogant in its judgements of the Judeo-Christian heritage of its own founders. And it hypocritically lauds them, while condemning the foundations of their faith. It excludes what they really believed, and those who today believe like them, on the grounds that such exclusion is actually more inclusive.

Perhaps you can't go down so many roads and be one person still? Why not dissolve the UUA, send the Humanists to Ethical Culture, and the Christians to the UCC? Little of modern Unitarianism or Universalism is either Unitarian or Universalist anymore. It's like soembody who calls themselves a Buddhist, but who has no use for the 8-fold path.


July 21, 2004 06:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jason Pitzl-Waters at the neopagan Wildhunt Blog expresses some concern about Earl Holt's reported call for a biblically-centered Unitarian Universalism:

Of course if the UUs ever did "stress" that it was a "a biblically centered faith" what would become of the Pagan Congregations in the UU family?

If a push-pull happens between the reviving Christian Unitarians and the growing number of Pagans making their home with the liberal faith would it cause a split? Would it be the seed of a pagan church movement?

In the end, I doubt the UUs will assert their Christian roots in a way that would alienate the Pagan, Theists, Buddhist and Polyamorous members. But then again our culture is getting pretty polarized right now, so I suppose anythings possible, even a schism in one of most liberal of faiths.

I don't really see a tug-of-war between Christians and Pagans. (There are probably fewer "Pagan congregations" in the UUA than there are Christian churches, but we're talking about a handful of the one and maybe two dozen of the other.) But there is no end of triangulation in the sibling rivalry of UU theological positions.

The issue that I think all UUs must grapple with — whether they identify their theological orientation as theistic, pantheistic, polytheistic, agnostic, naturalistic, or atheistic — is how our history relates to our present. Even Pagan UUs need to be able to tell a compelling story about how they found a home in the tradition of William Ellery Channing and Hosea Ballou.


July 22, 2004 09:54 AM | Permalink for this comment

Joe G. at Beppeblog looks at Reconstructionist Judaism and liberal Quakerism — two other modernist religious movements with their own theological diversity issues. He writes about liberal Quakerism:

Perhaps the phrase “past has a voice, but not a veto” should read “What past? No need to fear a veto!” for us liberal Friends. More and more new comers to Quakerism (and I refer only to the liberal branch here) have less understanding of its traditional beliefs and practices; and its children and youth are left with the impression that as long as they are kind, pacifist, and form their own religious opinions they are Quakers. This amorphousness results in many of our young people drifting away to other traditions that offer a more solid understanding of its beliefs and practices (e.g. Roman Catholicism or Buddhism) or to rejecting organized religion altogether (ironically enough given that many of their parents came to Quakerism due to their rejection of organized religion). New comers, on the other hand, mistakenly translate the fact that Quakers don’t have creeds to mean that we don’t have any doctrines or beliefs (other than the overly used “that of God in everyone” and the even less specific “the Light”). Thus, they spend their time amongst Friends discovering and creating their own belief systems (if any at all) and, if they choose to join, wind up expecting (sometime demanding) that the Religious Society of Friends shift and change to accommodate their unique, idiosyncratic belief system.

Sound familiar?


July 23, 2004 04:21 PM | Permalink for this comment


My knock on Reconstructionism is that it is UU with a little Hebrew. Way too individualistic.


October 15, 2005 03:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

Derek parker said, ? Why not dissolve the UUA, send the Humanists to Ethical Culture, and the Christians to the UCC?

Does this mean you think that all UUs are either humanists or Christians?
Let me inform you that there are those of us who are neither atheists nor Christians.
Some Christians feel that if one doesn't believe in the same God they do, then one doesn't believe in God at all. I hope you are not that kind, and merely misspoke.
Let me remind you also that the first "Humanist" was a Catholic. It is not incompatible with a belief in God. Perhaps God Itself is a Humanist.
I am a devout UU and would not be comfortable in any other tradition. Please don't suggest disbanding us. If we are not, after all, the proper fit for you, then that is another matter, and you must decide that for yourself.

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