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Monday, January 9, 2006

Theology II: What do you want to read?

On the heels of our discussion of the doldrums into which Unitarian Universalist theology has sunk, I'm going to try offering a followup question or two. Here's the first:

What do you want to read?

I assume that part of the problem with contemporary UU theology is a simple lack of material. There's not much supply: Beacon Press rarely publishes theology, and their books are always directed at a non-UU audience. Skinner House has been expanding, and now publishes books of UU history, theology, and religious commentary. Meadville Lombard has published a handful of titles. In a few cases, a self-published book by a UU minister or scholar has attracted an audience. But taken together, we're talking here about four or five books a year. And, truth be told, these books rarely sell well. Not only is there little supply, there's little demand for Unitarian Universalist theology books.

The periodical well is not very deep, either: UU World goes in the mail only four times a year, and given the range of needs it is expected to meet for its 126,000 subscribers and the institutions it serves, one magazine can only do so much. is starting to publish online-only essays, but doesn't yet have a track record for initiating theological conversations. (Of course, if you would read it and respond or improve on it on your blogs . . .)

Meanwhile, the circle of Unitarian Universalist periodicals keeps getting smaller. Several affiliate organizations publish annual (or biennial) journals. (There's good material in the Unitarian Universalist Christian and religious humanism, but unless you're a devoted partisan of the UU Christian Fellowship or hUUmanists — or you're spending your days in a theological library — I'll bet you're not reading either one.) Both the Journal of Liberal Religion and UU Voice are attempting to survive by publishing on the Internet, but the conversations generated by either one are quite small and generally restricted to small circles of clergy.

A few blogs occasionally take up theological themes or issues, but let's all admit that few of us read blogs strictly because they feature "theology." But blogs do open up inexpensive new publishing opportunities, and as we've all seen, the growing community of UU blog readers and writers is opening up space for some great conversations. I don't think blogs are enough, though.

So I'd break down my question like this: If the bunch of us feels dissatisfied with the current state of UU theology, would we read a new crop of publications — specialized blogs, online magazines, new periodicals, books? Would we contribute essays or feedback to group blogs, online magazines, periodicals, or books? And if it's not "theology" so much that we want to read and think about and write ourselves, what is it?

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 9 January 2006 at 9:13 PM

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Dan Harper:

January 9, 2006 09:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

Great minds think alike, Chris... on my blog, I just posted on a way to make theology happen,except that instead of print publications, I'm thinking a combination of intensive face-to-face un-conferences (a la BarCamp) as well as Web-based communication.

Just an idea, but sounds more do-able, and more fun, than trying to prop up traditional print pubs.

Bill Baar:

January 9, 2006 10:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

What ever happened with the redesign of the blog feeds? I'd like to see a way to break out posts that deal with UU Theology.

I'd like to see more discussion on Dan's theme of post-modern theology (if it's even theology), and I'd like to see some discussion on when can even do UU theology. There was an issue of authority throughout the whole previous thread I thought should be examined.

A lot of people started theology threads and posts and I'd like to be able to group them together somehow and follow them.

And what is barcamp Dan? I went to the link but still don't understand it.

Scott Wells:

January 9, 2006 10:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

It looks like a cross between a meta-listmeet and a workshop.

Listmeets were a late 90s phenom where people on an electronic mailing list would meet in person for socializing and/or some project. "Meta" in this case because it would be self-selecting crewe, loosly related to the blogosphere, crossing over specialized interests.

I like the "there are no spectators" rule, which cuts out the passive and disengaged. It also ensures there will be programming.

The name comes from that all-purpose geek word: foobar (c.f. fubar)


January 10, 2006 12:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

I could see something of a group blog happening. Drupal or something could work for that. Just limit it to long essay form and then allow comments. I hate listservs and the like, so I'm putting in my vote against that route.

I'm all about the po-mo, but I worry about going down that road. It's very 90s, and few academics are still talking about it. If we wanted to go that route, we could pick specific authors: Foucault, Habermas, Rorty, Zizek, etc. There really isn't any "postmodernism," only postmodernisms. That's the first mistake people make.

Along that line, I could also see us picking a particular theologian, perhaps a UU one, and going from there. Henry Nelson Wieman, perhaps.

Most of all, I'd like us to first focus on two theological problems: Authority and Eschatology. I don't know how any theology we would do could be valuable without knowing where we're standing and we're going. But then again I'm just an old po-mo here.

I'm fine for meeting in person (sounds fun), but it has to be within driving distance of Atlanta or someone else will have to pay for the plane ticket. ;-)


January 10, 2006 05:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

When you say that "part of the problem with contemporary UU theology is a simple lack of material", this is exactly what a renewed interest in UU theology should address first: we need to generate a new corpus of contemporary works that reflect the current state of UU studies. This will give people the stuff to work with, either to agree, or disagree, or propose something else. But we can't go on referring back to the Baltimore sermon or to the Divinity School Address or to the Permanent and Transient all the time, we need something fresh and up-to-date as well.

I think that the level of JLR is really good in general, but the web has not been renewed lately or only irregularly. We also have the problem of a lack of availability of other publications, such as the British Us' "Faith and Freedom", which has limited availability outside scholarly circles in Britain, and afaik it has no online version. We are also generally ignorant of what is being discussed in the Hungarian-speaking world, because of lack of translations.


January 10, 2006 07:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

Bill raises a question about cataloging and tracking blog conversations -- something I'm finding increasingly hard to do. Expecting blog authors to tag their posts only works with the supergeeks, but there's no way for authors to come up with uniform and reliable tags -- and I have no idea how a Blogger user would employ tags at all. A better option here would be for someone who understands to start a UU Theology tracking page and let the rest of us know about it.

Chutney's idea of a theology-oriented group blog would be easier to use and understand than relying on a geeky solution like or a Wiki or whatever it is Dan is excited about. (Sorry! It went over my head the first and second time, Dan.)

If we can ever get around to recreating the Coffee Hour group blog, built-in categories could effectively set up a Theology section where readers could find everything in one place -- if UU bloggers signed on and cross-posted or only posted their theological writings there.

Finally, I confess that the closest I've come to reading contemporary academic theology is through Theology Digest, which offers condensed versions of "significant articles selected from over 400 of the world’s theological journals." Life is short, and most academic writing is boring at best. But I love this little Jesuit magazine. The current issue page offers a summary of the summaries, however; the actual digests are more often 400 to 1,200 words.

Dreaming big, now, but wouldn't it be great to have a Liberal Theology Digest that tracked the European theology Jaume mentioned along with developments in the U.S.?


January 10, 2006 08:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

Since the initial comments have been on the scholarly, geeky side, I want to emphasize something: I'm not only asking who wants to read "theology."

In our previous thread, a lot of people expressed a lot of interest in other kinds of writing -- or said that their interest in theology wasn't met by long academic words. My question is for them, too: What do you want to read?

Ron Robinson:

January 10, 2006 12:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris, you ask: what do you want to read? or have conversations about, in this vein?

For me it is emergent po-mo church (and church-planting churches) from a bit more of a liberal perspective and understanding than I can get from all my reading of the ones in this area who have meant so much to me (McLaren, Easum, Bandy, Sweet, Slaughter, Morganthaler, Kimball, and even the recent Schaller, and others they have inspired; a lot of great emergent stuff coming from Australia and New Zealand such as Steve Taylor's new book, the out of bounds church). There have been very few UUs I have encountered, Michael Durrall aside, who have an acquaintance not to mention passion for the passions of these writers who are transforming church in this century. The same is true of liberal Christians in general. But I think there are folks interested or who would be out there, particularly those who are finding it more and more difficult to work up passion for what the church does these days and wonder why, and if there is a better way.

BTW, when I think of po-mo those are the ones I think about and not the Foucault, Derrida, Yale School, those I fell in love with during the 80s doing graduate work in English, but who have little relevance to church today (though when I do biblical interpretation I still draw from that source). More exciting po-mo is coming from cultural and media and business studies that is drawing from what has been going on in the church world and from which the church world itself now draws.

A place to share and brainstorm theological and ecclesiological and missiological insights from Wired and Fast Company and the Harvard Business Review, as well as a kind of liberal First Things, which I don't find at all in The Christian Century (which took forever to do a cover story on the emergent church and McLaren's work), or don't find in anything coming out of progressive Christian circles which seems more interested in political matters and defining themselves against fundamentalism instead of secularism.

I'm in a growing conversation here in Tulsa with a few other liberal clergy in this vein, and hope to foster some through the UUCF, but I think something like what now passes for the UU clergy study groups (Prairie Group, Greenfield, Berkshires, etc), but which is open to laity, a kind of parallel community, would be helpful. Intentional Online is a good place to start. Then maybe an off-the-grid dinner and speaker gathering during GA time could follow. Maybe something modeled like the Free Church Conferences that have been held around the country since 97 is a good way to start too (I've been to the ones at All Souls Tulsa in 97 and at Memphis in 99 I think it was and then in Cleveland in 2001) and missed the ones in Worcester and Florida, but the theological richness was good and as I side comment I would love to see a "Best Of" book presented from the papers and responses given during them.

I guess one of the personal problems with me is that I would have little interest in a forum where all things eventually regressed to rehashing the efficacy of God language, for example; like regressions to bashing the UUA. Maybe we need our own form of community where there are different portals for newcomers or those who have been in the conversation awhile.
Ron Robinson


January 10, 2006 09:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ron hits it on the head for me in his final paragraph. I am grateful to the blogging/commenting UU community for providing great conversations this year but it does seem that whenever UUs try to do theology, someone comes into the room who vehemently denieas that we should be doing theology in that way at all. And then another chimes in about how someone isn't respecting someone else's inherent worth and dignity by having this or that conviction, and there we go spiralling into accusations of "you're not being inclusive enough!" again.

Although lately there's been less and less of this, which makes me hopeful.


January 10, 2006 09:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

What if we simply decided to plow ahead and, for once, simply ignored protestations of hurt feelings and creeping credalism? Here we are, attempting to do liberal theology; deal with it. The advantage to this approach is that anyone who feels offended can console themselves by saying that we're just a bunch of crazy bloggers!

Dan Harper:

January 10, 2006 10:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

More on what a theological ""BarCamp" could look like now on my blog. Participants would co-create theology that is embodied, "open source," not directed by a modernist meta-narrative, distributed over a human system. It's not the centralized, academic, book-based model we're used to, but I believe you can't do postmodern theology using modernist tools.


January 10, 2006 10:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think you're on to something there, Chris. Let's just plow ahead.

I'm happy to host the site, especially if its something that Fantastico installs. ;-) Seems like design will be a secondary consideration to say the least, so most of the up front work would be figuring out how the durned thing should be structured.

To get that discusion started, I'd suggest something like this. Each contributor gets his own blog (so something like Drupal would be in order). Regular contributors would be asked to contribute an essay every so many days or weeks or months. Categories would be universal across the site for easier tracking of conversations, and for easier compare and contrast. Comments would be open by default, although authors and/or administrators could close them if they wished.

As far as those categories go, I'd suggest the P&P and the Living Tradition, instead of the traditional categories of Christian systematic theology. I know this won't make everyone happy, but it seems like the easiest way to go since they're already there and written. (We could always add a category or two later if we needed to, and tagging too if it was easy enough.) Also, with categories, we could see if certain topics were being neglected and make appeals for contributions there.


January 10, 2006 11:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Now that I've written all that about categories and such, I really like Scott's interest in church planting and ron's interest in the emergent church. Very practical and easily connected to theology.

Of course, even if we went with one or both of those topics for, say, the first month or two, we could still use the P&P category schema. We'd just tick off whichever categories our emergent church and church planting essays most related to. As we moved through more and more topics, our ticking off the P&P categories would in itself become a way of doing theology. Imagine checking out the "inherent worth and dignity" category two years from now and seeing all the essays connected to it, for example.

Thinking about comments now, I'd really want them to be moderated, at least for a commenter's first two or three posts. I'd love it if something like's rating scheme could work, but that's probably a pipe dream.

Dan Harper:

January 10, 2006 11:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

One last thought before bed -- instead of a group blog, better technology for doing theology, especially summaries of theological works, might be a Wiki. Mind, you have to assume a system based in trust (although there are ways to shut destructive persons out of a Wiki). And you really have to believe that no one person can do theology, that no one person has complete and final insight into ultimate reality and ultimate truths, that theology must be done in dialogue.

For more on an epistemological theory that could support this use of Wikis, see Charles Saunders Pierce's essay, "How To Make Our Ideas Clear."


January 11, 2006 02:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

There is already a TheoWiki online ( It needs expansion (and it has few Unitarian-related entries).

Pat McLaughlin:

January 11, 2006 01:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

I rather like chutney's proposal--but more to the point, I think it provides the right basis for talking about UU theology. Talking about theology in terms of traditional Christian theological concerns is going to be DOA for many--and I suspect most--UUs... if for no other reason than that most of us aren't Christians.

At this point in time, about the only thing that UUs can seem to solidly agree on are the P&Ps and a devotion to social justice work.


So let's build out from there. On the way we can wrestle with some (many? all?) of the traditional questions and considerations of theology--but some of them will probably be of interest and concern to only subsets of UUs. However, essentally all UUs will be interested in considerations and explorations of what the 7th principle means, implies and demands.

We can then step over and explore what those shared understandings and insights mean... and what they illuminate... in our various hyphenated subsets. What's the specific subtle spin that's significant to UU Buddhists, and to UU Christians and to UU Pagans, and to UU Jews, and to UU Atheists...

As Dan observed, it looks like postmodern theology will be local. But I think that "local" isn't geographical. UUism is the whole stained glass window... and we need to discuss the theological frame, the whole image, as well as the subtle theological glow of cobalt blue, or cadmium red.

For example, just last night, meeting with our new, incoming group of members (8 this month, so far... despite the minister's insistence that we set the bar high and practically make people demand to become members...) I heard a lot of talk about spiritual seeking. The idea that this was a church where your views and understanding could grow... without having to pack up and leave and find another community... spoke to them all. The thing I said that I'm told really resonated was that--in my perception--we are currently reclaiming both "unitarian" and "universalist" and figuring out what they mean to us now, in the larger context where their status as radical Christian heresies is not even meaningful. Talking about what "universalism" means... to people who don't believe in any god at all, or whose concept of god is so different from traditional concepts... is important.

Personally, I think that it's captured in the Seventh Principle (but that's my take, and may be my subset spin...). We're all part of "this" (where this is everything), there's no escaping it, and what befalls any of it befalls us all. If we want to be "saved" (whatever that might mean to us), it's going to be--has to be--collectively.


January 11, 2006 03:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

This is my first comment after years of reading Philocrites. Thanks for the excellent blog, Chris.

I will finally stop lurking and comment. I'm a solo parish minister in my third year at a post I love. I read the earlier post and beginning of the discussion about the practicalities of doing UU theology with interest. I realized that the sermons of my own which I like best *and* which my belief-eclectic congregation likes best are those that are theological. I preached on God last year--some different possible definitions, and problems with them--and it was wildly popular (or, you know, as wildly popular as a sermon can be). My UU Buddhist membership chair now gives it out to prospective members. I just last Sunday preached on C. S. Lewis's _The Abolition of Man_, and particularly on the difficulty of affirming fundamental values while acknowledging that they might turn out to be wrong, and again--very popular. These sermons give me a chance to think and write theologically as well as share my passion for that sort of thinking and writing with my congregation. So can't theology be done from the pulpit? It's ephemeral, of course, but it's there.

I'm also leading a Bible study this year just because I was enthusiastic about it, with both historical criticism and "what does this passage mean for my life today," and I've got a core group of atheists, humanists, UU Christians and non-labeleds coming and liking it. So for me, the answer has been to stop worrying about the perceived unpopularity of theology or Christian-based thought and go with it because I like it. And I have to say that I have encountered a lot more hostility to careful thought and theology among UU seminarians than almost anywhere.

Perhaps this comment belonged in the earlier thread, but it took me a while to overcome my lurky reticence.


January 11, 2006 04:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

I forgot that there is also a "UU-Wiki" available (


January 12, 2006 02:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

A confession: I went to seminary to become ordained with the UU. But instead during school I turned my interests to theology and decided to do further graduate work in american philosophy and threw my lot in with the Disciples.

But my interest in UU thought has not diminished. One class in seminary which opened me up to american philosophy and a way of doing God talk that made sense was a UU course on american religious naturalism.

Such a category may or may not be theistic, it's something other mainline protestants have worked on (Gordon Kaufman comes to mind) but it's primary home and primary work has been done by UUs (such as Wieman and currently Jerome Stone)

In that sense, I think such a theology is something that a.contributes to the wider church and society outside of UUism b.but is reflective of the distinctive features of this liberal religious faith.

In any case, I'm not UU, but I think Unitarian Universalism is of vital importance to the american religious landscape. And there has been some good thought out of such a movement. I wouldn't mind throwing in my 2 cents if there was to be a community blog.


January 13, 2006 03:59 AM | Permalink for this comment

On Ron's comments about postmodernism, the emerging church, etc., I am reminded of how many times people have said that contemporary UUism is *so* postmodern. But are we? Particularly in our post-Protestant Sunday liturgy. I mean, is a sermon postmodern? Is being led in singing postmodern? Is a responsive reading postmodern? Shared ministry is sure postmodern, but is it done enough, or is it truly shared? And our public stances on politics and education, are they guided by a postmodern approach, or by the old liberal modern strictness of what is "right" and "wrong"? These inherent contradictions in our theoretical embrace of the postmodern mindset also need to be addressed.

Bill Baar:

January 13, 2006 09:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not sure what post modern means. (I gather it has a very specific meaning referencing a train of contempory theological writing.)

I am fascinated by Ratzinger when he talks about a Church in a post-Christian world. He talks about what a Christian Church should do in such a world.

I don't feel very Christian, and much more a part of the secularism that's vanquished Ratzinger; yet I don't think we talk very seriously about how we should do in a post-Christian world.

Anyways, let me know what happens with the camp or wikki or where I'm supposed to turn to follow the unfolding.


January 13, 2006 07:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Apart from his now famous sermon in JPII's funeral against "relativism", I recommend reading Ratzinger's debate with Habermas in Munich on the State, the Law, and the role of religion. It is available in several sites on the Web and in different languages.


January 13, 2006 07:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

On Emerging, you all may also be interested in what Stephen has to say from Britain in his Unitarian blog, Reignite:

Bill Baar:

January 14, 2006 06:40 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume: I'll look for it. I've only read Salt of the Earth. I kept asking what it means to be a liberal when a conservative talks like he does in that interview.

It's easier for me to understand what I am, by understanding what I'm not.

That's not easy with Ratzinger.

I find myself agreeing with Oraina Fallaci's comments in the WSJ about him,

"I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger." I had asked Ms. Fallaci whether there was any contemporary leader she admired, and Pope Benedict XVI was evidently a man in whom she reposed some trust. "I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true. It's that simple! There must be some human truth here that is beyond religion."

A lot of it gets down to authority, but I'd like to read more of him on relativism so I will check up the interview....

...once I wade through the UU theology document which somehow intimidates me.


January 15, 2006 09:51 PM | Permalink for this comment

As a UU myself, I'd like to take part in a Theology blog group/club/bunch of people yammering at each other in geekspeak :-) It's always been a hobby of mine to think and try to figure out who/what God really is.

Doug Muder:

January 16, 2006 11:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

I want to read (and hope to write more) about how to bring objective knowledge and subjective knowledge together productively in religion, rather than letting one rule at the expense of the other. How do we make room for serious religious experiences to change and shape our lives, and yet give modern science and reason the respect they have earned?

How do we balance tradition with contemporary insights? Can we give ourselves room to critique and re-evaluate tradition without pretending that we are the first generation of intelligent humans?


January 17, 2006 08:27 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume writes "But we can't go on referring back to the Baltimore sermon or to the Divinity School Address or to the Permanent and Transient all the time, we need something fresh and up-to-date as well." And I agree. Just want to mention that the Unitarian pastor Hans Tambs Lyche said almost the same in 1893 when introducing Unitarianism to Norway. Of course he did not use the same words but what he meant was exactly what Jaume says. It is strange to see we hare still struggeling with the same things as the old pastor. Perhaps it turns out that this struggle is our identity?

Best wishes from Knut in Norway

Ron Robinson:

January 19, 2006 07:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

Belated Response to Jaume: Amen!. That is on target for what I meant. I see us as the high denizens of print culture modernity Enlightenment, (which of course has been important and contributed much). Liberalism itself in its different contexts has been so embedded into the above that it is hard to imagine it otherwise. But we need to do it. For links on the pomo as I use it now, see the stuff at and his book Postmodern Pilgrims in particularly but the others are great too, or and its links, or a classic site, Bill Easum's latest book on risk-taking churches called Under the Radar is a good one too. I use postmodern and emergent church interchangeably though some pomos are already moving beyond what "emergent church" has come to exemplify, and the emergent leaders themselves are trying not to let the movement get too boxed in too soon.

Just spent a seminar with Diane Butler Bass and her work with the Lilly Foundation on reimagining the old church, and her work with center-left churches is important, and UU churches can gain a lot from the insights of her research (stress tradition, practices, wisdom sharing) that is coming out in some books soon. Emergent isn't the only new game in town, and there will be a variety of healthy expressions of what church looks like in the coming century, but I still came away from her lectures still downhearted for how little real transformative work is being done by the mainline center-left churches that are still focusing on rejuvenation and redevelopment, at their best that is, instead of on what needs to die so resurrection can occur. This work is being done out there I know even in the mainline (though polity does seem to be a deterrent to going out of bounds), but it isn't getting the attention it deserves.

And, now that I think about it, though it probably bleeds over into the Alito conversation, there are parallels with political liberalism as well. That the right gets pomo and the left doesn't shows up in the political spheres as well and is one of the reasons I always thought Gore and Kerry didn't make the endzone though they came close.


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