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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Uh oh, it's salvation by hermeneutics.

If you miss the kinds of conversation that take place in graduate seminar rooms, Michael Hogue, a young scholar at Meadville Lombard Theological School, is trying to launch a "new Reformation" in liberal religion at a new Meadville-sponsored blog.

I'll confess two things up front about his project: When I heard Hogue deliver his speech calling for a new Reformation at G.A. this summer, my early hopes quickly faded: The substance of his critique is not at all new, though he delivers it with passion and sincerity. (I heard a much better version from Paul Rasor at G.A. two summers before.) In the 1930s, James Luther Adams introduced the style of liberal theology Hogue is trying to practice. You could call it "salvage theology": pull apart key concepts in the tradition in order to expose "demonic" aspects and recenter attention around the enduring "divine" impulses. Unlike Adams, though, Hogue doesn't yet offer a way forward. Instead, he tells us what a way forward would look like. Instead of a proposal, a prolegomenon.

Regrettably, the conversation really does sound like graduate school. It's salvation by scholarship, a dismal prospect. If Unitarian Universalism were faced merely with a shortage of academic theologians, the rest of us might be cheered to know that what few of them there are had set up a forum to talk shop. But when most UU ministers, seminarians, and theologically curious laypeople like me talk about a theological crisis in Unitarian Universalism, we aren't worried about hermeneutics, phenomenology, or the phases of concrescence. It's not the absence of high-level abstraction that depresses us; it's the absence of gospel. What are we about? What's the point?

There's no gain in describing what a better theology will be like. Analytical thought is best applied to something at hand: We are, bless our wandering hearts, already practicing a popular theology. The critical task is to analyze that popular theology to see what is life-giving in it and what is dragging us down. And if, as no small number of us suspect, we have arbitrarily cut ourselves off from a larger religious conversation and even from our own wise and sustaining traditions, the trick will be to help reconnect the popular theology to those conversations. This is not fundamentally an academic task; it's a pastoral one.

But there are things I wish to commend about Hogue's project. First, good for him for being ambitious enough to launch such a conversation. It takes moxie to set out to revive "theological literacy" within Unitarian Universalism. (One could say that it's also a bit presumptuous for a non-UU, freshly hired by a UU seminary, to reform us. I'd be very interested to know, for example, how deeply he has mined the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions. As a proponent of "liberal religion" who is not himself a Unitarian Universalist, Hogue could clarify what, precisely, the tradition he is championing includes and what it does not — and whether that tradition requires churches or can evolve independently in seminar rooms.) I don't mean to be unhelpful with this criticism: If he does nothing more than help younger UU scholars find each other, that will be a good and important achievement.

Second, I am genuinely interested in what "theological literacy" means in a Unitarian Universalist context. I'm content to let the academics hash out the finer points of metaphysics, hermeneutics, and all that jazz. (No one should ever hope that we will all become philosophers.) But the rest of us could benefit from clear, succinct introductions to the range of liberal religious responses to basic theological questions.

Third, Hogue's discussion of the "crisis" in liberal theology reminds me once again to recommend Gary Dorrien's wonderfully illuminating overview of the last fifty years: "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity" (CrossCurrents 55:4, Winter 2005-2006). Dorrien is one of the leading interpreters of the broad tradition Hogue seems to want to explore. How does Hogue see liberal religion's relationship to this tradition of thought?

Finally, good for Hogue for making use of blog technology (if a bit clumsily) to launch this conversation. It's great to see Meadville embracing a tool like this, and I'm sure that over time better uses of the technology will enable all sorts of dialogue that could not have been possible before. The best thing about a blog is that it is both interactive and highly mutable: A blog can be reconfigured and the direction of the conversation shifted whenever necessary. I'll be very interested to see how Hogue's conversation evolves.

Although this post may sound like a rather backhanded welcome to the UU blogosphere, I really am pleased to welcome Hogue to the "interdependent web" — and to the community of people who care about the liberal theological tradition.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 16 September 2006 at 11:37 AM

Previous: Parallel universe work places.
Next: Brother Roger's communion with the bishop of Rome.





September 16, 2006 01:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was talking with Shawn at LoFi Tribe about liberal theology recently--about the lack of narrative. He mentioned Process, too, as an example of a theology which is intriguing, but doesn't have a gripping story to tell.

I'd like to see some folks working on that, along with the scholarly underpinnings (which of course I'm interested in). You say we are missing "gospel"-- are we missing "good news" or a story about what the good news is? Something we can tell and retell, and out of which we do our reflection. It seems to me more difficult to go the other way--from reflection to story. (And is it possible to have story without teleogy? If not, then what is our teleology? Do we have anything equivalent to the eschaton in Christianity, the Pure Land in Buddhism, etc?)

Anyway, thanks for the heads up--I'll add Hogue to my blogroll and watch the discussion!


September 16, 2006 02:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Reminds me of a comment A.N. Whitehead once made to the effect that Christianity is a story in search of a metaphysics while Buddhism is a metaphysics in search of a story. James Ford or Jeff Wilson could correct Whitehead about Buddhism, but the insight is still worth reflecting on.

I've long thought that Theodore Parker introduced a dangerous distinction into Unitarian theology by divorcing the "permanent" from the "transient" so sharply because it put story and history on the transient — and disparaged — side. The Unitarian Christians and the Universalists did have a story, a biblical account of salvation, which they interpreted in Unitarian and Universalist ways. But the Transcendentalists and their heirs looked for trans-historical sources of truth. This tendency makes us vulnerable to the temptation to look for salvation in philosophy — makes us very much like what Whitehead called "Buddhism."

But communities live by the stories they tell, not by the doctrines they (tentatively, temporarily) proclaim.


September 17, 2006 01:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

The story I tell is from Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. ( a satirist is a good place to find a UU story....). It is about gods who gain strength from the people who worship them -- the more people the stronger the god. But religions build up a crust of ritual and rules and stories and beliefs and power structure around the god, and eventually the people believe in the religion rather than the god, and the god suffocates in his crust and dies.
I say that UUism is trying to make a religion that doesn't build up much crust so that its god doesn't suffocate and stays alive. We are trying to stay in that moment of pure faith before we add the story to help us understand.

Bill Baar:

September 18, 2006 02:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

This is not fundamentally an academic task; it's a pastoral one.

I don't believe UU pastors have time for the task.

Wasn't that one of the points that came out of the comments on the Theological Diversity thread a while back?

Theological Liberalism in a funk.

Instead of examining itself, Liberalism examines the critic; then dismisses the critic with the authoritarian Father metaphor and takes comfort in being the nuturing mother.

The Liberal core belief that a creator endowed all with inalienable rights to life and liberty, that secular authority respect all beings as adults, not as mother or father; is lost in the Lakoffian mumbo jumbo.

A faith illiterate with its with it's core will believe everything and nothing at once. If we don't regain the Liberal core, then we shouldn't continue. Our funk becomes depression. We wither in slow self destruction.

Lets hope Hogue keeps plugging away albeit in a less academic language. Like the pastors, the laity short on time too.


September 18, 2006 07:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

...authoritarian Father metaphor and takes comfort in being the nuturing mother.

It's Nurturant Parent, not Mother. If you're gonna reference Lakoff, use his terms not your own.

Colin Bossen:

September 19, 2006 10:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think you hit it dead on. We have a lot of challenges but I don't think "recovering our theological literacy" as Hogue defines it is one of them (neither, for the record, do I think it is reconnecting the movement with the liberal Christian tradition as some many members of the UU blogosphere seem to think).

Bill Baar:

September 20, 2006 04:48 AM | Permalink for this comment

sorry Kim, but it's mom and dad who come out in the frame sessions.

Two moms or two dads if you like but we're still left with a joke sans punch line.

And it's the punch line, that everyone wants to be treated by all as an adult, that's most important. That's the only Liberal choice: theologically or politically.

We've lost sight of that fight for dignity with this metaphor. It's not good.


September 20, 2006 07:17 AM | Permalink for this comment

Wow, Bill, either you consistently misread me or I have a pronounced tendency to misstate what I think. You wrote, "Instead of examining itself, Liberalism examines the critic; then dismisses the critic with the authoritarian Father metaphor and takes comfort in being the nuturing mother." Huh? Do you think you're talking about me?

My complaint about Michael Hogue's criticism was that it wasn't especially new and that, rhetorically, it set out to deliver things it could not. (It also had nothing to do with George Lakoff.) A lot of us have criticized very similar features of Unitarian Universalist life — I've taken up themes you'd find interesting in the pages of UU World — but our ears perk up when someone arrives saying that they have a new path to offer. My disappointment has to do with the lack of a proposal, and with the (possible?) lack of familiarity with the tradition itself.

I have no opposition at all to academic theology, but as Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the creativity of liberal theologians in the past 50 years has been isolated to the academy — it doesn't reach a wider audience. Awkwardly for us, he also points out that the only proponents of liberal theology who have reached a wider audience — the only public liberal theologians in recent memory — have been "liberal evangelicals" like Peter Gomes, Marcus Borg, and even John Shelby Spong. Dorrien says it's because they continue to present liberal themes in personal, biblical language. The more "academic" theologians have not found popularizers.

One task a seminary like Meadville Lombard could take on is the role of popularizing liberal theology -- which is what they seem to be trying with the Journal of Liberal Religion and with Hogue's blog, except that these forums still sound exceptionally academic. I'm certainly looking for writers who can make a wider range of liberal theology accessible to the general public.

But there are, sadly, no well-known, popular advocates for a post-Christian liberal theology these days. Which leads me to think that we face a real puzzle: Are Unitarian Universalists capable of articulating a liberal theology to the "mainstream" American public without at least connecting that theology in some way to the Christian tradition? Colin says no. I suspect that if we don't, we are certainly guaranteed to have become a niche religion, drawn either into a sectarian and dogmatic corner on the one hand or into sociologically derivative and class-bound communities on the other.

Bill Baar:

September 20, 2006 11:17 AM | Permalink for this comment

You wrote, "Instead of examining itself, Liberalism examines the critic; then dismisses the critic with the authoritarian Father metaphor and takes comfort in being the nurturing mother." Huh? Do you think you're talking about me?

No, I had referred earlier to your comment,

This is not fundamentally an academic task; it's a pastoral one.

and responded back questioning whether our clergy had the time, energy, or were funded, for this task. My recollections from the earlier discussions were a resounding chorus of nays from clerical readers of this blog.

So whether the task fundamentally belongs to them or not: they're not up for it.

An alternative has to be found and I think Hogue off to a good start, although I find slogging through the academic language tough going at times too.

The widely used Lakoff frames are examples of the problem and I didn't have you in mind as I wrote.

I think they're a problem because everyone deserves to be treated as an adult by Church and State. It's crippling, and not particularly Liberal, I'd argue for us to think otherwise.

Metaphors have been obstacles for Liberal thought and E.J. Dionne gives a slightly different version of how lethal they can be in a review of a new biography by David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography.

Dionne writes how, Hofstadter analyzed the right wing of the 1950s and early 1960s in similar terms. Psychological disorientation and social displacement became more important than ideas or interests.

It lead to a wrong turn for Liberalism as Dionne quotes Lasch,

The late Christopher Lasch, one of Hofstadter's students and an admiring critic, noted that by conducting "political criticism in psychiatric categories," Hofstadter and his intellectual allies excused themselves "from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation."

Lasch added archly: "Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds."

Hogue is suggesting hard and difficult work. I think we should encourage him because there's been bad turns taken.

Ron Robinson:

September 20, 2006 06:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Speaking of Dorrien, we have his upcoming lecture title now:

"Liberal Theology Today: Crisis and Renewal in Progressive Religion" will be the topic of the Keynote Lecture by Dr. Gary Dorrien on Saturday, Nov. 4, at 10:30 a.m. followed by a talkback workshop with Dorrien at 2 p.m., at Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, 160 Central Park West at 76th St. during Revival 2006 sponsored by the UU Christian Fellowship. This is an update to the Revival brochure. You can receive a brochure by email by contacting Early discounted registration ends Oct. 2. One day registrations are available. You can get full biographical information on Dorrien and other information on the Revival at

Thanks for passing this along, especially to those you may know regardless of religious affiliation, and particularly for those in the NYC and surrounding areas.


p.s. about the thread itself and liberal theology and its incarnational aspects, I've blogged a bit down this line with latest post on the tension points in emergent progressive church planting, and particularly in the admittedly all too brief part of it called theology: heresy #2. At I will be revisiting the issue due to a thought that crossed my mind while reading Liquid Church, about how we have progressed ourselves into regression, or "How Can You Keep Moving Forward if you don't have a Context For Motion?"

James Ford:

September 21, 2006 09:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hi all,

I'm just arrived in Chicago and am now officially resident at Meadville, having the enormous privilge of spending the beginning of my sabbatical as minister-in-residence here.

I was taken with Chris's citation of Whitehead's dictum about story and metaphysics. Sadly, as with so much of Whitehead I don't quite follow the point either Chris or Whitehead was going for.

For me while it's pretty obvious we humans think in story, and therefore stories must be important to us, and it seems stories can be good pointers for those who wish to ease the hurt of self and other; ultimately stories are dualistic constructions, at best what are called in the dharma "skillful means" & salvation, the healing of that hurt at the heart of the world and our own hearts, I suggest, is not going to be found there.

But then, if Whitehead is right, perhaps that's why I'm a buddhist.

A tip of the hat to all you deep thinkers,


Mike Hogue:

September 21, 2006 09:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris, Colin, Bill and the rest,

Strange to read so much about oneself. A couple of comments. My intention and rhetoric in "the call" speech was to provoke, and it seems something like that's been accomplished. It was also only meant as an early diagnostic comment about the way I see things, an initial not a summary statement.

I think it's fairly accurate in many ways, even if it's not novel. The tensions within liberalism (religious and political) have often been noted. But I do think there's something to be said, especially in our time, for the effort to think carefully through these tensions again. I know you all agree with that. "Liberalism is dead; long live liberalism."

I also think, despite some disagreement, that the work of making religious liberalism more relevant, coherent, and to give it some more cultural traction entails more (but certainly not less) than what can be done from the pulpit. I don't think it's pastoral work alone. Certainly arcane academic discourse is not all that's needed (though I try to be as plain as possible), and certainly it's not the appropriate voice for all venues. But liberal religion and UUism as a formation within it do deserve some rigorous philosophical and theological treatment. I hope you all agree with that.

In light of Dorrien's recent writings, I am very intrigued by what it might mean to attempt to recover and represent that lost side of liberal theology that he interprets as being the only one that ever had much of a cultural impact--evangelical theological liberalism. But evangelical does not exclude careful thinking. Getting that across will perhaps entail the recovery of theological literacy that I have been writing about.

Colin Bossen:

September 22, 2006 10:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

I have to admit that I haven't yet read Dorrien. I have the essay Chris recommended on my desk for post sermon writing reading and his history of liberal religion at the top of my list for post-MFC reading (right after finishing my collection of Rudolf Rocker books and a book on world trade routes pre-14th century). So, that said, how does Dorrien define "evangelical theological liberalism"?

If he doesn't include Humanism in his definition I am afraid I think he's far off the mark about when and where liberal theology has been culturally influential. Let me give you three examples of how humanists have had been influential in shaping our society:

1. Humanists were important in the formation of the Pacifica Radio network and remain an important base for its support. Unitarian minister Raymond Cope (who identified as neither humanist, theist or deist) was one of the first chairs of KPFA, the first Pacifica station, and through the station was linked with the anarchist pacifists who were the stations instigators. When the network was almost taken over by Democratic party activists in the 90s Unitarian Universalist humanists like Neil McLean, Richard Challacombe and the Berkeley Fellowship played an important role in organizing resistance. Less anyone play down the importance of Pacifica let me suggest the following things about the network: As far as I know it was the first listener supported radio station in the country. It was also the first national network of listener supported radio stations. it remains the only national progressive media network in the country. I think it is probably fair to say that without Pacifica NPR either wouldn't have been born or would have a very different shape than it does.

2. Humanist ministers like Stephen Fritchman played important roles in resisting and ultimately defeating the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Fritchman's church in LA even lost its tax exempt status in the 1950s because he refused to take a loyalty oath.

3. Arguably one of the most important, if not the most important, Unitarian Universalist clergyperson of the last fifteen years is a strident Humanist. I refer to Bill Schulz, past President of our Association and past executive director of Amnesty International, USA. Amnesty is an incredibly important human rights organization and under the Schulz administration was openly critical of the Bush administration's "War on Terror." I think it is fair to state that they are one of the leading moral voices in our country, if not the West as a whole.

I think that the task before us is to continue the legacy of the Humanist movement and expand it theologically to be friendly and inclusive of theists, liberal Christians and others. Where the movement and theology so often falls down is its need to attack theistic positions, which is a mistake I believe. I was very intrigued awhile ago by Chris's interest in Christian Humanism and if I was in a position to I might push people to try and articulate some sort of "Broad Humanist" movement...


September 22, 2006 11:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

I posted something of a response here. (Those WordPress to MovableType trackbacks never seem to work.)


September 22, 2006 11:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

Colin, Dorrien describes influence not in terms of public policy or cultural impact but in terms of shaping religious discourse and religious practice. He is talking about the shaping of American religiosity.

By "evangelical," he's pointing to the importance of the Bible in formulations of liberal theology. The most influential liberal theologians (on American religiosity) continue to promote a Biblical liberalism rather than an abstract philosophical theism (like, say, the process theologians) or a post-Christian humanism.

To quote him directly, Dorrien says:

Throughout its history, however, liberal theology has made its strongest appeal when it fuses its two heritages with spiritual power. From its Enlightenment/modernist heritage it has emphasized the authority of modern knowledge, affirmed the continuity between reason and revelation, championed the values of humanistic individualism and democracy, and usually distrusted metaphysical reason. From its evangelical heritage it has affirmed a personal transcendent God, the authority of Christian experience, the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption, and the importance of Christian missions.

The movement's historic figures — those who made liberal Christianity compelling to millions — were gospel-centered modernists who fused the two languages with conviction: Bushnell, Beecher, Rauschenbusch, Fosdick, Niebuhr, and King. . . . In the past generation liberal evangelicalism has withered as an option for academic theologians, yet whenever liberal theology finds a large audience, it speaks a gospel of personal faith in biblical terms. Gomes, Borg, and even Spong are closer to Beecher and Fosdick than to the (narrow sense) "modernist" and postmodernist academic theologies of their generation. They explicate biblical texts and focus intently on what it means to have a personal faith in the postmodern age.

To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?

His central claim is that a popular liberal theology is a precondition for strong liberal communities, and that overly academic theologies haven't developed popular forms — to the detriment of liberalism as a larger social phenomenon.

mike hogue:

September 22, 2006 12:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think Chris's comments on Dorrien are accurate, and that Colin too is making an important point. What I'd like to see develop, and want to pursue myself, is an evangelical liberal theology that is deeply ecumenical and interfaith, and that can join theists and humanists together, for the purpose of a gripping public religious and cultural witness. This is a bit different from what Dorrien says has worked in the past. But the past is not our present. It's a lot to hope for and work toward, perhaps seeking to be all things for all people. But I think there are possibilities nonetheless, rooted in current North American religious trends and in some of the history of UUism. Pushing this depends upon a couple of things, not least a recovery of God-talk that treats "God" as a comparative religious symbol, and a renewed appreciation for religious myth and symbol that treat them as having real cognitive, not merely moral instrumental, significance.

Ron Robinson:

September 22, 2006 02:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites sums up (eloquently and accurately):
>His (Dorrien's) central claim is that a popular liberal theology is a precondition for strong liberal communities


September 22, 2006 04:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

I took the suggestion of reading Dorrien. As an article for an encyclopedia that surveys the contributions of the main personalities of liberal religion, it is excellent. It lacks, however, any indication of the major challenge that renders those contributions mere apologetics.

The issue is metaphysics, itself. We no longer hold to its dualism. There's no world beyond. Kant trashed the transcendent 225 years ago. For *theology* to continue its appeals to transcendence is at best backing and filling.

I have read Wittgenstein as philosopher. I have not read his work on religion yet. I relish Ricoeur's work (incidentally, although Dorrien refers to "liberal theology," he ignores the continental tradition except in passing) but R maintained his Christian imprimatur by regressing to Hegel's aufheben as necessary. So, when in doubt, appeal to metaphysics.

That day is done. The sooner we get on with it, the better. Surely there are writers, even in religion, willing to risk the metaphysical accusations? Dorrien, who are those?


September 22, 2006 05:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's worth noting, Rex, that Dorrien's article is a hyper-condensed version of the third volume of his history of American liberal theology. The goal of his trilogy is to provide a history of the distinctive American tradition of liberal Christian theology — not to survey an international body of post-orthodox theology. This means that he is not looking at "radical" theologies or approaches to philosophical metaphysics that step some ways beyond or outside the Christian tradition — and he really is arguing that there are distinctively American liberal theological traditions.

You are obviously approaching the subject matter as a philosopher. Dorrien is approaching it as a historian of theology.


September 22, 2006 11:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Of course Dorrien is doing history--as apologetics. A claim to writing a history of theology does not absolve him of the responsibility to inform his comments with human knowledge, whether from philosophy or anywhere else.

For example, in conclusion Dorrien proffers this suggestion to the personalists: “Instead of defining the spiritual in terms of the personal and moral, one might define the personal and moral in terms of the spiritual, fashioning a scripturally grounded theology of universal spirit and love.”

About 175 years ago Emerson wrote in his essay: Experience, “(T)he definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence. What notions do they attach to love! what to religion! One would not willingly pronounce these words in their hearing, and give them the occasion to profane them.”

Emerson could not avoid metaphysics, and neither can we, so far. That is not a good excuse to wallow in it, as does Dorrien, or as Emerson writes, “profane them.”


September 23, 2006 09:59 AM | Permalink for this comment

Rex, unless "wallowing in metaphysics" means "not rejecting out of hand claims made by Christians," I have no idea what you're talking about.

There's a lot of serious, well-regarded, professionally competent, and wonderfully illuminating religious history out there. I've seen nothing in Dorrien's work to make me think he is anything but a serious religious historian.

Granted, Dorrien is an Episcopal priest as well as a tenured professor at Union Theological Seminary. Granted, CrossCurrents is not quite a peer-review journal for primary research. The article is a compression — perhaps even a popularization — of an argument from a forthcoming book. But I don't see what justifies your dismissing his entire argument out of hand.

(To my other readers, yes, I'm about to belabor a point. Sorry.)

In the article Dorrien is making an historically informed observation about the failure of many forms of academic theology to influence the popular practice of Christianity. This is an especially problematic turn of events for the practice of liberal Christianity, which has been floundering. Dorrien isn't saying that some of these theologians are right and some of them are wrong. (I haven't seen him make metaphysical or theological judgments about any of the various theologians he introduces in his first two books.) He's saying that much of 20th-century liberal theology has been increasingly confined to a small circle of academic specialists and has not reached a broader audience. The only sort of contemporary liberal theology that seems to reach a broader audience is "gospel-centered modernism."

That's a historical claim, and it strikes me as true — even if Marcus Borg is blowing smoke, even if Peter Gomes is a charlatan, and even if Martin Luther King Jr were completely misguided in saying that "the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." Their ideas are getting through.


September 23, 2006 12:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

My complaint is not "Dorrien-specific," although I will stick to my assertion that he is doing apologetics. By "wallowing" I meant only to gripe that, since Kant and Emerson, religion has been on notice its formulas are transparently fallacious. I expect liberal theology to have been willing to take that seriously.

My complaint is that Christianity, with a few exceptions such as UU humanism, cannot bear to admit that the dualistic world view (life/afterlife, etc.) while held to by an overwhelming majority of humans (non-westerners as well as westerners) is intellectually indefensible. (Religion is not about taking a poll.) Consequently, Dorrien's survey of its defenders is mere list-making, name-dropping.

In the West, dualism is familiarly described as metaphysical. It no longer works in philosophy and barely continues to work in religion of any sort. Are there alternatives? If there are, I won't hear of them from Dorrien.

Some, a growing number, in philosophy are at least honestly struggling to work without a metaphysical commitment.

Analytic philosophers (those who once were only interested in strict materialism) are now talking with continental philosophers (developments out of German idealism). E.g.,take a look at John McDowell. Until recently, those folks had no use for each other. Now they realize that materialism, so long as it is in reaction to metaphysics, is also thereby metaphysical.

The instruments of natural science now have the physicists working with invisible entities, such as quarks, maybe dark energy, and the old standbys of materialism are no longer sufficient. The old metaphysical vocabulary of continental philosophy had to assume that we knew what such hypothetical objects as "consciousness" and "meaning" were. Since the materialists never relied on such (OK, at least not since NVO Quine woke them up) continental philosophy is taking a second look at that. Since invisible entities are something continental thought has always been interested in, analytic philosophy is willing to take a second look (at mostly the mistakes made) there.

If UUism wishes to remain in the museum business, then such diaramas as Dorrien offers will keep us entertained. Knowledge is progressing. UUism ignores knowledge at its peril. Think about it: what was Channing's message in the Baltimore Sermon? Bring knowledge to bear in religion! To put it bluntly, use your head. That's our UU tradition.


September 23, 2006 01:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

Whereas my observation is that a religion that attempts to appeal primarily to the highly specialized class of philosophically-trained intellectuals is doomed. It is doubly doomed if it radiates disdain for the working notions normal people bring with them when they first walk through the doors.

Unless these specialized abstract ideas are reborn as popularly accessible ideas, they're socially impotent, no matter how "true" they may be. Metaphysics (and the wholesale critique of metaphysics) just flies over almost all of our heads, and it always will.

(As you can see, my Pragmatism is revealing itself.)


September 23, 2006 01:49 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm an admirer of the pragmatists. Since "praxis" takes its significance only in contrast with "theoria," however, alone it is at best a half-truth. I believe UUs are not only educated people but are willing to be educated in religious ideas.

Your objection, in reverse, becomes a plea to not be asked to do any work, but instead see the church as a place to socialize, to have our hands held, and to be lullabied into somnabulance. (No wonder we are accused of being narcissists.)

I will not accuse you of that extreme, since I suspect you are open to new ideas. But do not give me the "ask our people to think and they'll stay home" threat. I know better than that after 30 years in our pulpits. I suspect you know better, also.

As a famous New Englander once heard, "Speak for yourself, John."

mike hogue:

September 23, 2006 02:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not sure what the comments between Rex and Philocrites are going after entirely. But in order perhaps only to provide further digression, I would like to say this: the disdain for metaphysics itself is grounded in a metaphysics, a total account of reality that rules out knowledge and moral claims that are either not empirically warranted or that are not justified through genuinely democratic dialogue. If not "dualistic," such a metaphysics is shrunken. Even a Rortian pragmatism rests on basic moral commitments to the good of ongoing democratic conversation, and especially to the good of the increase of freedom, and these commitments themselves arise out of something approaching a comprehensive worldview.

What any of this has to do with our questions regarding liberal religion and liberal theology seem to be a little off point. Except that there is certainly a strong pragmatist trajectory within liberal religion that needs to be critically considered. If all we're after is what "works," and if we neglect the questions of truth and right and the good and the just, then liberal religion will remain captive at any time to its cultural circumstances and thus be unable able to speak and work prophetically beyond them.

Aside from this, I think Philocrites is right to defend Dorrien from critique from concerns that his project is not really engaging. On its own terms, and within the scope of what he has professed to do (to write an historical genealogy of N. American liberal theology, and to point toward but not himself to develop a new constuctive liberal turn), Dorrien's work is a HUGE offering of service to all of us.


September 23, 2006 02:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

"(D)isdain for metaphysics itself is grounded in a metaphysics"? Most likely. And that is the issue. Disdain for the "disdain," however, is intellectual laziness. (Please forgive my blutness. Blogs offer little opportunity for subtlety. I admit, that may be just my excuse.)

If I may quote myself from upthread, in reference to the Dorrien article, "It lacks, however, any indication of the major challenge that renders those contributions mere apologetics."

So UU theology is happy doing Christian apologetics? Not in my world. Yes, Dorrien's world is a big world. But "my dad is bigger than your dad"--if that matters.

It is a sham to write of "ground" or "ultimate concern" and then ignore what the worlds of knowledge are doing today. Mike, you are catching us up to the Kantian critique. Good. We've been pre-Kantian for most of my 64 years as a UU. And while Kant is not the last word, whoever *disdains* him chooses to shut their eyes.

The news is that exciting ideas are being exchanged. Take a look at the "Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy." They do an annual convention. The next one is in Philly, Oct 12-14. Yet even they concede they are not adequate in the area of religious studies.

Let he who is adequate in the area of religious studies throw the first stone? My hands are empty--except I'll send you my copy of their program if you're interested.


September 23, 2006 05:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

“I would like to say this: the disdain for metaphysics itself is grounded in metaphysics, a total account of reality that rules out knowledge and moral claims that are either not empirically warranted or that are not justified through genuinely democratic dialogue. If not "dualistic," such metaphysics is shrunken. Even a Rortian pragmatism rests on basic moral commitments to the good of ongoing democratic conversation, and especially to the good of the increase of freedom, and these commitments themselves arise out of something approaching a comprehensive worldview.”

Let me see if I understand you. Are you saying 1) that any “total account” that reduces reality to simple-minded materialism is simple-minded? 2) Any that claims as its sole governing ground only empiricism (that’s what NVO Quine demolished in the 1950s, incidentally) or agreement of the participants (that still carries a lot of weight) is inadequate? Appeals to such reductiveness are shrunken views? Rather, in order to bring to bear a moral framework of goods such as Rorty’s commitments and claims, it can only “arise out of something approaching a comprehensive worldview”? (I expect I am hearing the ecumenical ethicist at work and for the most part I agree.) I will not hold you to demonstrating for me that “comprehensive worldview”--unless you have one, in which case, please, please give me at least a hint or even the reading list. I am not aware of any such that can hold its own against developing knowledge today.

Many of the classic philosophers set out to write ethics—Locke, Hume, certainly Kant, Hegel. They ended up doing epistemology only because it was a necessary first step.

Orthodoxy’s epistemology (revelation) shuts down communication. So also do claims of “a comprehensive worldview.” Yes, we need it. Yes, it would be grand. But except for recitations of church creeds, one is not available. And apologetics will never get us there.
Rorty’s pragmatic appeal to continuing communication is an example of Emerson’s “evidence of itself.” I know you would agree that religion, insofar as it is not interested in communication, is a drag. I may “disdain” metaphysics, but I welcome and insist on open communication.


September 23, 2006 06:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites the anti-intellectual! Right...

I have never argued that metaphysics isn't worth doing. Nor have I argued that UUs are uniformly uninterested in it. Nor have I argued that it's unimportant.

Instead, I have argued that a compelling theological vision is important to the longterm vitality of the Unitarian Universalism, that such a vision needs to be popularly accessible in order to be compelling, and that much of academic theology has failed to be popularly accessible. I'm not so interested in blaming the academics themselves for this failure as I am trying to figure out a way to rebuild some idea-generating capacity for religious liberals -- inside and outside the academy.

I introduced Dorrien as a way to help people unfamiliar with recent academic trends to have some idea of what academic theologians have been talking about in recent decades. I also asked Mike how he understood his project's relationship to some of the schools of thought Dorrien identifies.


September 23, 2006 07:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

So, Rex, you would catch us up to Kant? Wonderful, the 18th century! Or is it phenomenology and existentialism? Great, the 1950s!

And they have a convention? They must be really important! Hello, relevance!

Your personal attacks on Philocrites do your cause no service.


September 23, 2006 07:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

Rex, just another inhabitant of the ivory tower, right? reduced to ad hominem arguments, per chutney?

We are stuck in metaphysics, and until someone can figure a way out of it, we will continue to spin the same old wheels. (Works for Hinayana Buddhism, so it can't be all bad.) UU humanism attempted an alternative to metaphysics by throwing in with physics, as do most analytic philosophers; the latter have honestly repented; I don't know that the former have—except for yours truly.

Dorrien, as descriptive historian, is excellent. I am not interested in picking an argument with Dorrien. He’s way beyond my meager acquaintance, as I read for relevance not for breadth. But I’m too old to go down any more dead ends. I’ve spent too much of my life already figuring out what writers don’t want to tell me.

Going back into the classroom after 50 years away, I have been delighted to discover that, at least in philosophy, some first rate questions are being tackled. Some first rate advances have been achieved, and those are in a direction that opens to traditional theological concerns. Every time I have tried to persuade either philosophers or theologians of that, I have received--what look to be, but couldn’t possibly be, since it would be rude--smirks. So I went back to class to see if there could be any basis for such pretense. And there ain’t.

If you think philosophy is in tatters; likewise academic theology—I agree. But with a few notable exceptions.

I have entered into the study of Emerson because he is a fountainhead for at least one major group of exceptions. I hope to begin study in theories of literary criticism after I finish my philosophy MA. (Pant, pant.) The crosscurrents with philosophy are roiling. Any guarantees that they won’t turn out to be dead ends again? Compared to what? Christian apologetics? I’ll take my chances that the breakthroughs in the first half of the 20th Century (none of which I heard about when I was in theological school) are worth pursuing.

chutney, would you be kind enough to cut and paste examples of my personal attacks on Philo? I shall be happy to offer genuine apologies. Unless I see those, I shall have to assume that you truly do subscribe to ad hominem arguments.


September 23, 2006 09:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'll be happy to, as soon as you tell me what ad hominems I made.


September 23, 2006 10:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Before we all assume the worst of each other's motives or intellectual predispositions, perhaps we could take a step back to see that everyone involved in these conversations is seriously engaged in the intellectual life of Unitarian Universalism and is trying to enhance that life. We may be going about that work in very different ways, but it doesn't serve the larger goal to be carping at each other in the way we've been.

I confess that I'm still trying to figure out what Rex and Mike are (separately) up to. I'm much more familiar with Chutney's intellectual interests. But it's silly for us to be fighting over assumptions when no one has offered a specific proposal.


September 23, 2006 11:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

We need a place to begin. I say we need a religous alternative to dualistic metaphysics. UUism is the only place I am so far aware of where there's room for that possibility.


September 24, 2006 01:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

PS. My point is, UUs don't believe in ghosts.

mike hogue:

September 24, 2006 03:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

I do hope and encourage us, along with Philocrites, to move our evident intellectual passion for liberal religion in a constructive direction.

Toward this, keeping in mind some of our previous banter, and keeping in mind the historical claims of Dorrien, what do you all think an "evangelical liberal theology" for our time might look like? What could source the "rugged commitments" that would shape such a missional theological and ecclesiological zeal?


September 24, 2006 04:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

Previews of coming attractions. Next Sunday I shall address the Long Beach, California, congregation with a sermon on Emerson. Here's the conclusion--as it stands now.

Two Sundays ago when I came to hear about the UN Population Fund, the choir sang “We are one.” That’s one of the most important ideas that RWE wanted to find a vocabulary to articulate. He is frequently interpreted in the light of his interest in Oriental religions. By his time, some of the continental scholars had gone off to India and brought back German and French translations of the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. Don’t forget that in RWE’s time, enough Americans still spoke German and French so that the scholarly work done there was available at firsthand for them. (RWE was tutored in the German language by Margaret Fuller, and if you don’t know her story, it’s worth finding out. She fell in love with an Italian revolutionary. Can anything be more romantic that that?)
Today most of us have to wait for the multilingual Brits to translate continental work, and it was so for Emerson. And if there’s one thing Shakespeare’s people love, it is romance. So that’s what we get from RWE. However, before RWE died, he had begun to see past Romanticism. And so we also get his struggle with such ideas as Fate and Experience in his essays with those titles.
Just as the choir’s ‘We are One’ did not sing about how we are one big happy bowl full of Jell-O—that is, our differentness is just as important to us—so RWE’s nature and Oversoul, etc. are not Oriental pantheism. The choice is not between the Judeo-Christian God who is a separate creator, separate from his creation or the Orient’s tat tvat asi, the great “I am that, too,” the whole of which we are all a part. Well, then, what’s left? That’s what Emerson was working on. And those whom he influenced continue that work today.
If you have lived through my generation, you know that in the late 1960s, the Death of God movement became a popular feature. Well, it seems that the original death of god guy, Friedrich Nietzsche, was a huge fan of RWE.
I am testing out on my UU colleagues the following question: Which is correct? All is one? Or all are one? So far what I have gotten back are referrals to the rules of grammar. Growl. Yes, it is a matter of grammar, but not the kind of grammar that has any rules—at least yet.
My speculation is that the distinction is one way to understand Unitarians and Universalists historically. For Unitarians, all is one. But for Universalists, all are one. For Unitarians, it’s more cosmological: the whole has to be taken in one gulp. For Unitarians, the old idea of a separate transcendent God coming down from heaven to walk on Earth is straight out of primitive religion. So all is one. For Universalists, it’s that individuals are all of equal worth, and if one is saved and loved, all are saved and loved. All are one.
And then again, it could be the other way around, if we take the root meaning of the words unity and universality as our guide. Unity is all are one. All is one is universality. In other words, if you think I have it all figured out, you will need to think again, and so will I.
But guess what? Then we have right here in our midst the tension and contradiction that we need to understand. We have this generation’s (and since RWE’s generation) a good question. Which is it? All is one or all are one? Think about it and let me know what you come up with.
But do remember 1) RWE was no mere journalist; pandering to popular opinion; he was a philosopher. 2) Knowledge and belief either are or maybe are not different. And UUism is different because we are willing to admit we don’t know which it is--yet. 3) Live the questions, for then the answers we need may come to us.
As I read earlier, RWE writes,” What is the privilege and nobility of our nature, but its persistency, through its power to attach itself to what is permanent?” I call the permanent "strength" in contrast with power. Strength is endurance, sustainability, not growth, especially not the kind of cancerous growth we now experience. And I call strength, religion, as opposed to superstition’s attempt to control what happens. And I’ll trade strength for power any day, but maybe we can have both, if we keep our priorities straight.

Note: I have the whole thing currently farmed out to three colleagues for their comments, but have yet to hear. Should you see something here that's off kilter, I'd appreciate your comments at

Colin Bossen:

September 25, 2006 07:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

Can I suggest that it might be helpful to take a step back in this debate and ask the following question: In the liberal religious tradition (and in contemporary Unitarian Universalism) what is church for?

I think that in this debate people may be losing sight of this central question. Working to answer it might help us to clarify which parts of liberal theology are corporate and which are individual. It also might point us to some pragmatic directions we can move to get liberal theology out of the mire.

PS Chris, thanks for clarifying Dorrien's definition. I've since read the article and found it quite useful (I even quoted his bit on "liberal theology is too secular for religious believers, too religious for secularists, and too academic for non-theologians" in my sermon on Sunday). What I'm not certain is that we should be trying to influence American religiosity or if other projects (such as public policy, social justice, etc.) take precedence. Nor am I particularly excited by the idea that Liberal Christanity offers us a way forward as a corporate body (I'm fine with individuals and congregations being Liberal Christian, I just don't think that's the direction we need to move as an association).


September 25, 2006 08:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

Colin, let me repeat something I posted already on the new M/L blog. While the church is for many things, it is one of the few places I know that takes seriously the acts of sacrifice (OK, love, if sacrifice is too abrasive) that hold us together. I relate that to the original sense of "sacred." (And by sacrifice I mean nothing more than a parent's loving care, a friend's generosity, concern for the stranger.)

It is true that ethicists are still arguing over whether pleasure and pain are the only motives or whether we gift one another even at a personal cost to ourselves. I believe the church holds to the latter.

If so, then a church's task is to offer guidance, and any relevant church does that. We counsel each other and how, when, and to whom to *sacrifice.* (I will restrain myself from contrasting that with narcissim.)

mike hogue:

September 25, 2006 12:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

Colin's question, what is liberal religion for, is the most basic question. I recently put it in slightly different form on my blog at ML. Liberal religion as I understand it is a way of being religious that transcends and crosses particular religious traditions. I have been thinking about how UUism fits within this broader category. At bottom, I believe UUism is the most concentrated version of the liberal religious way, and so within our movement the problems and possibilities of liberal religion are magnified. UUism is in a sense, then, a laboratory for a late(hyper?) modern, post-secular, post-denominational religious formation.

It's a crucial "laboratory" for inquiry and construction insofar as any of us thinks being religious liberals matters in the world. I do not think, and here I agree with Rex, that UUism should abandon an ecclesiological purpose in order to concentrate on issues...this would only further a destructive conflation of political liberalism with liberal religion. And to do such I think would only further splinter UUism and reduce the movement's potentially collective (and religious and politically "ecumenical") creative impact on the world.

I also think that there may be a way to rethink the notion of "theological core" that our coherenece and pragmatic purposes depend upon. What if instead of "core," we were to advance and organize around an interfaith discourse-practice? I have asked this before, and will continue asking this question::: Is there a way to present such a religious discourse-practice that is evangelical, embodiment of a liberal religious "gospel"? What might this look like? How might it be forwarded? And might it entail a rethinking, (though not at all a dismissal) of our "unitarian" and "universalist" identity markers...moving them from theological concepts toward metaphors for the liberal religious form of life?

These thoughts are of course roughly progress, etc... And of course I am not arguing against the theological roots of Unitarian Universalism, but I think toward a more capaciously theological sense of these roots...

Is this just a mess? Or does something here resonate with any of you?

Ron Robinson:

September 25, 2006 12:18 PM | Permalink for this comment

Sorry that my previous post was sent truncated somehow, twice now [Second one deleted. —Philo], but then it seems to have been sent lightyears past due to the subsequent directions the conversation went. Anyway, I had said:

Philocrites sums up (eloquently and accurately):
His (Dorrien's) central claim is that a popular liberal theology is a precondition for strong liberal communities...

My point was going to be that this is where I think Dorrien either has it mostly backwards or is just too limiting a guide as a way forward. My point was that we become relevant/influential through the incarnation of communities rather than the attraction of messages (and Dorrien's point in each of his books has been grounded on liberalism as a "third way" which is true I think but reveals our inherent weakness or challenge, as it keeps us having to fight on two fronts so to speak and therefore increases our reliance on message), and that it is more of our not adapting to the shift that we now "belong and then believe" rather than 'believe and than belong," an issue that we have discussed before (see more on all this at my progressivechurchplanting blog) and that this is where liberal religion jumped ship with culture years ago, having lost the incarnational edge and experience and tried to overcompensate with hyper-Enlightenment Modernity Knowledge Stuff, as well as pithy elevator speeches, bumper stickers, Time Square Ads, etc.

But since I was working on that point, Philocrites reminded me and all about Dorrien's focus which is historical of course, at least in his works. So I don't expect him in this final trilogy to go into any emergent church sense of what is meant by postmodernity culture, as he will probably keep to an academic understanding of pomo, and that's okay given his look. Though since his third volume will take us up to the year 2005, maybe there will be something about how liberal and evangelical and emergent continue to be on separate shores and why this has been so. A better history of that might help us see a way beyond.

I am looking forward to Dorrien's NYC Revival talk with us because I have heard that he can deliver a great sermon, and I suspect that comes in part out of his academic work and life too.

On all the rest that intervened between when I tried to post this post and where it comes now lol, I am always grateful for reminders why I should spend more time in prayer and scripture and service than online :)


September 25, 2006 01:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ron writes, *become relevant/influential through the incarnation of communities rather than the attraction of messages(…)not adapting to the shift that we now "belong and then believe" rather than 'believe and than belong,"*

I expect that the community/message contrast is not intended as an either/or—at least I hope so—but simply to stress the significance of community. To the next contrast, I bring my personal history of having grown up in a Unitarian Christian church, thinking my way out of that into existentialist humanism, and moving on from there to a troubled version of a Western ontology—but all the while as a UU. So I have my own experience of Mike’s “interfaith(…)laboratory” within UUism. Where else?

Mike writes, *an interfaith discourse-practice? I have asked this before, and will continue asking this question::: Is there a way to present such a religious discourse-practice that is evangelical, embodiment of a liberal religious "gospel"? (…)a laboratory for a late(hyper?) modern, post-secular, post-denominational religious formation…*

“Discourse-practice?” I have been out of things for 20 years, writing, studying. I did briefly visit a UU clergy weekend nearby about a year ago. It’s still the same old lone wolf struggle (characteristic of academics, too) it was back in my day, although with a larger, but just as quiet, female contingent. I have no idea if my casual experience is typical. If so, I don’t feel I have missed much. I correspond from time to time with contributors to the Journal of Liberal Religion, and I am surprised at how few times they’ve heard from anyone else. Is it because the minister’s job is impossible? And it is. Is it because we have no shared body of work except our history?

“Post-denominational”? Really? I will spare you my tub full of experiences trying to be post-denominational, except for: Just recently I ran into a guy who was a Presbyterian minister when I knew him. He’s now UCC. He and I exchanged pulpits—except that since the presbytery opposed my presence in his pulpit, I ended up at a UU fellowship that Sunday. Things may have changed in 20 years, but I doubt it.

“Late hyper modern”? In philosophy (and of course I only speak for that part of it I am familiar with) “modern” has to do with human freedom. No one I’ve read has yet domesticated that wildcat, so it’s still “modern” without the qualifying adjectives.

“Post-secular”? I heard from a Habermas protégé that JH is using that description. However, since “secular,” I have understood, takes its significance in contrast with “sacred,” post-secular then is also post-sacred. What would post-secular-sacred be?

“Evangelical”? That’s my excuse for sharing yesterday my RWE sermon conclusion. RWE constantly railed at his fellow Americans for settling back into the same old ruts they should have left behind in the old country. His requirement for public intellectuals was that they “lift and cheer,” and that was his mission. So did my childhood minister, and that’s why I ended up a UU. Still.


September 27, 2006 09:12 PM | Permalink for this comment

Colin wrote: "In the liberal religious tradition (and in contemporary Unitarian Universalism) what is church for?"

This was the question that preoccupied me early in my seminary career. Studying James Luther Adams, I riffed on his essay "A Faith for the Free" that the (liberal) church is "the institutional form of those creative powers in human life which enable mutual and just relations among free people, gathered in the worship of that creative power which sustains and enables all meaningful relations."

I developed an expanded version of this idea in my essay "Authority in the Spirit: Developing a Doctrine of the Liberal Church," which I regret to say I have not reformatted in a bunch of years; it may be kind of hard to read on the screen.

But thanks for bringing this question to the fore, Colin. I certainly agree that it's central.


September 28, 2006 07:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

At his Meadville blog, Mike wrote:

I am wondering if anyone out there would like to think with me about the possibilities for an evangelical liberal theology for our time, one that might be able to provide the binding public vision that I have suggested the ongoing significance of liberal religion depends upon. Could such an evangelical liberalism be a source for the cultural reanimation of Unitarian Universalism? Could such an evangelical liberalism be developed in the interfaith spirit of religious liberalism? What might it look like? How might it come off? What form of ecclesia will it need in support?

Two different and not necessarily overlapping issues are at stake here. There certainly is a need for an "evangelical liberal theology for our time," but it may not be Unitarian Universalism's place to provide it. I think it's much more likely, as Dorrien himself suggests, that American Episcopalianism will lead that particular charge. Christians still have the capacity to speak to something like a "mainstream" culture and to directly engage the theological disputes that are raging within it; we increasingly do not.

This is because "evangelical," in Dorrien's work, really does mean "drawing closely from the Biblical tradition" — because that tradition maintains such cultural power for so many people. Yet that Biblical tradition is something that has become so tenuous for the overwhelming majority of UUs that some (like Rex) can dismiss Christian vocabulary as little more than a belief in "ghosts."

I'll look past Rex's derision and simply note something else that Dorrien observes: Unitarian Universalism, in moving more toward a clearly post-Christian framework, doesn't fit within his general scheme anymore. (The only UUs he discusses are Christians like James Luther Adams or "biblical humanists" like Forrest Church.) Religious humanism, as it has developed among us, is no longer a theological option within the liberal theological tradition (as Dorrien traces it) but rather a rival to it.

Maybe it's possible for us to develop a different general scheme, a storyline for the liberal theological tradition in which the various Unitarian Universalist stances remain live options within the larger tradition, but frankly, other liberal Christians no longer pay any theological attention to us. We are increasingly on our own theologically. I regret this; I imagine Rex does not.

Maybe Unitarian Universalism can't speak to the culture at large; maybe we have a more specialized, niche-focused, or even sectarian calling in the world. What is it? I don't know. Being "stuck" in liberal Christianity, I'm not sure I'm in a position to say.

Mike, like the radical theologian and UU Richard Grigg, seems to look for a different animating center: not "a gospel" but rather a kind of interfaith engagement. I find this notion hard to wrap my head around. I wonder what will be engaged: In most interfaith settings, practitioners come together out of their focused traditions to learn from each other before returning to their traditions, but in what sense can a church make itself into that forum, with no focused tradition of its own to impart, without becoming parasitic or derivative? I could be fully committed to interfaith engagement without leaving any particular tradition; why join a church where I must try to practice a tradition on my own?


September 28, 2006 10:28 AM | Permalink for this comment

What is a "biblical humanist?"


September 28, 2006 11:20 AM | Permalink for this comment

"...other liberal Christians no longer pay any theological attention to us. We are increasingly on our own theologically. I regret this; I imagine Rex does not."

I regret it but have become inured to it. My disappointment with Dorrien is that, while he pays some attention to struggles such as UUism, he mostly reinforces the same old Christian apologetics (by which I mean attempts to conform contemporary thought to church creeds and traditions).

Liberal Christianity would pay attention to us again if we had something to offer. But it would end up spun as another endeavor in apologetics. Has that not been our history since 1550?

I have read Cobb and find his notion of a limited deity worth thinking about, his process vocabulary not worth the struggle it requires. I have read Griffin and find almost nothing there worth my time. I have read Ogden, and since his earlier liberation theology, if he’s a “liberal” now, then I’m a raving lunatic. If those are indicative of liberal Christians, I’ll pass, and let the ignoring be mutual.


September 28, 2006 11:20 AM | Permalink for this comment

Former UUA president John Buehrens used the phrase in his book on the Bible:

We know that religious truth did not appear all in the past, that it did not all get sealed between the covers of the Bible. We Unitarian Universalists are spiritual beneficiaries and descendents of the Renaissance humanists who insisted that the Bible is human literature about the divine, not divine literature about humans, and therefore requires the same critical approach as any other literature. We are the spiritual beneficiaries and descendents of radical reformers who insisted that the scriptures should be available to everyone, so that all might claim their powers of interpretation and understanding.

I have sometimes used a simple phrase to describe my overarching perspective on life. It’s shaped, I say, by a “biblical humanism.” In using the term “humanist” I am not refusing to think about God or to search for transcendence. I am identifying with a great tradition of critical thinking about the scriptures, going back to the scholars of the Renaissance and Reformation. They approached the Bible as one would any other human text. What they were interested in was uncovering — revealing — the human experience of the Holy, of God, of enduring truth and wisdom lying behind the veil of the ancient texts.

Forrest Church has written similarly about the Bible; if I had my copy of his book God and Other Famous Liberals I might be able to find the phrase there, but I haven't read it in many years.

mike hogue:

September 28, 2006 08:17 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'll throw something out...

It may be that the present ethos of UUism is in some ways "post-Christian" and "post-biblical," but I think it is very much Protestantism in concentrate.


September 28, 2006 09:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

If post-Christian means non-exclusively-Christian rather than non-Christian. And if post-biblical means post-proto-science-biblical.

Science is the way to go if you know what you want. But for choosing what you want, science is dumb compared to the Bible, which remains the single richest resource in my heritage.

But the Bible is no longer the vernacular. Unfortunately, that's "Sex and the City" et. al. Fortunately, it's also "King Lear," and I'm trying to remember the title of the video I saw recently that dared also to be a tragedy--can't. Critics loved it. Customers not.

Colin Bossen:

September 28, 2006 10:56 PM | Permalink for this comment


Care to unpack "Protestantism in concentrate?"


While I like JLA's suggestion for a description of what the church is for I'm afraid it is too densely academic to do me much good in the parish. I like Rebecca Parker's, from Proverbs of Ashes, a little more:

"When they are in trouble--homeless, hungry, injured in spirit or body--human beings look for haven. Despite religion's failures, people come to churches counting on hospitality for the frightened, harbor for the distressed, shelter for the unjustly persecuted and pursued."

But I am afraid it also falls short for me for a number of reasons. Maybe the place I need to be starting at is this: If people didn't have churches what would they be missing? If Unitarian Universalist churches disappeared what would be missing?


I'd like suggest the following about Unitarian Universalism:

-- shared belief is not primary in our religious movement; something else brings us together
-- we are no longer exclusively Christian and never will be exclusively Christian again
-- for a huge host of reasons we will never be a "mass movement" or a popular religion, we are, and pretty much always have been, small and pretty much a sect

Personally, I don't have any problem with these things. They inform me thoughts on why I think we exist, who we are and what we're capable of.


September 29, 2006 03:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

But it's silly for us to be fighting over assumptions when no one has offered a specific proposal.

I am trying to follow this -- heaven only knows why-- it's pretty dull. but it started -- at least from where I am starting it, with a statement that UUs need a story. Yet, here are all these words and arguments and not one of you has proposed anything like a story.
Let's hear you come down off of your intellectual perches where you talk about how we need to get into a position where we can say something from, and just say something!
Or at least convince me that when you say we need a liberal theology that you don't mean a creed. All this verbiage looks like a lot of just beating around the bush. If you are interested in producing a UUism that appeals to more people, then you had better get used to talking (writing) in ways that appeal to real people. and you all clearly need some practise at that.

and, Bill, I do not agree that people want to be treated like adults -- they like to think they want to be treated like adults. It's not the same thing. If people really wanted to be adults, most of them might be UUs instead of clinging to traditions that tell them what to think.


September 29, 2006 11:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

Colin: Because I have now hung out in one place long enough to see it, our children are very happy to get along without the UU church. I have no reason to think the experience is different anywhere else. It’s not because they aren’t grateful for the experiences they had in UUism growing up. It’s because they have outgrown the need for UUism. It’s UUism that needs to grow up.

Parker’s motherly plea is lovely. But since our UU ancestors saw to it that a social service safety net be built in the USA, putting on band aids and holding hands has been professionalized in social work, etc. JLA’s primary admonition, to change the system, has been captured in the yarn about stop jumping in the river to rescue the people who come floundering by; go upstream and stop whoever or whatever it is that’s throwing them in. Some social workers pursue that path as well.

Kim: If it’s stories you want, we have a history so full of heroes that there’s enough to keep us occupied for a long time. If it’s the story, as Mike put it, of a “complete worldview,” I’m afraid we fit the Chinese curse of “living in an interesting age.” Our cosmologists as yet have no idea if our universe is running down; maybe so, maybe not. So that leaves only a story of adventurous investigation. If the current adventure of ideas hasn’t gripped you yet, keep looking.

And, yes, I agree most people would be happy living in a zoo, so long as their keepers were kind and gentle. Look at Singapore. And, yes also, we have so far been able to resist the trap of a lowest common denominator religion, a religion of creeds.

Mike Hogue:

September 29, 2006 01:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

I appreciate some of Kim's concerns. But just "saying something" strikes me as part of the problem.

When my neice was younger, she said something that has lingered with me. "With one foot on the ground, you can do more." I don't recall the context very well, but as I have reflected on her enigmatic comment, and as I have held her comment in mind through my studies and writings, it seems to be a great bit of wisdom.

One can't just say something (on the analogy that saying is a kind of doing), and hope for that saying to have any kind of real hearing in the world, if one is not at the very least acknowledging that one's saying or address is coming from some particular location.

This is one way of getting a handle I think on all the verbage here. I hope that UU's are UU's because they think UUism has something to say to the world, and not just because they find it to be comfortable place to dangle their feet. But they can't figure out where they're saying it from. Much of the talk about needing a "story" and of the need for some "remedial theological" work is about this problem. Where are UU's coming from? (the left wing of the Reformation, the liberal christian appreciation for the biblical imaginary and respect for higher bibilical criticism and other non-biblical sources of knowledge, and concern for the propohetic moral meaning of biblical religion beyond its truth-status?). Where are we standing? (Clearly we don't know: post-Christian? post-humanistic? trans-theistic?) I don't think UU's can say much of anything (at least nothing that is not strictly autobiographic) until some clarity on these matters is gained. I think we're all considering what role the blogosphere can play in this.

To clarify where I'm coming from a bit and where I've got my feet on the ground: I'm a "hired" theological voice, academically trained in theological ethics, a progressive Christian by faith, culturally and politically a liberal religionist. In light of this I understand my vocation in a UU seminary and within the larger UU world to entail the work of illuminating theologically the situation of UUism in its present and in reference to its larger historical-cultural and religious setting. This is what I aspire to anyway. My job is not to do the work that needs to be done in the pulpits, but to aid those who will eventually be there to do it themselves.

By "protestant in concentrate" I refer to the tendency to privatize religious commitment, to shrink the significance of religious life to self-therapy (a post-christian version of evangelical christian soterio-centrism), and to treat individual experience (impossibly unmediated by tradition) as the primary authoritative source for theology. Admittedly an off-hand remark, I think there is some truth to the idea that these Protestant patterns dominate the UU ethos.


September 29, 2006 02:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Mike is much too kind in his description of the plight of UUism today. As I was ending my active ministry in the mid '80s, we were aware of the concept of "narcissism." The question was whether the church had to become such in order to minister to its members who were clearly such.

If religion is just another commodity like entertainment, don't we have to give the customers what they want? I shall not venture an answer to whether or to what extent we have succumbed. Certainly the courageous shelter provided for same sex couples is not what the larger customer world expects.

Sydney Mead was a first rate scholar of American Protestantism. In one book he illustrated an approach to the political issue (outside the church) by citing a 19th Century evangelical whose reply was, "If a minister has to tell his congregation what to do politically, he's not doing his job theologically."

I mention that only to rachet it up one notch. If a seminary professor has to tell his students what to do in their pulpits, he's not doing his job theologically. Or else, they're not listening.

I don't remember anyone ever saying that ministry would be easy. Do you?


September 29, 2006 03:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

PS. One among the many helpful slogans I've been taught by 12 Steppers, whose recovery program commits them to helping other alcoholic/addicts, is to think of their task as "To carry the message, not the alcoholic/addict."

So lighten up. Sing along with the old Eagles, "Takin' it easy." The only ones who should dare to try to re-parent someone are professional counselors who have an established armory of protection that clergy dare to operate without.


September 29, 2006 04:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'll repeat the point I was making when I launched this long conversation: I don't think academic theology can lead a revival of Unitarian Universalism as a religious movement. As fascinating as I find it personally, it is, as Kim said, too dull (and inaccessibly arcane). But more importantly, academic theology is an exercise in analysis; it uses critical skills to seek coherence in the religious ideas and practices of its community. But it depends on that community in a way that the community doesn't depend on theology.

That's why I said that it's a pastoral task to provide a vision for the religious community — a story to live by.

A further truth is that you certainly shouldn't come to me looking for such a vision. I'm a critic and an editor, not a UU visionary or prophet. I'm looking for the storytellers and vision-casters, too.


September 29, 2006 05:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

Admittedly an off-hand remark, I think there is some truth to the idea that these Protestant patterns dominate the UU ethos.

One of my favorite philosophers, Barbara Sher, says (and I paraphrase) 'No matter what religion you were raised, if you were raised in this culture, you're Protestant.'

By the way, it wasn't me who asked for a story -- that was the premise of this whole conversation -- that we needed a "story". I am merely the only one who offered a story. I do agree that we have a lot of good old stories -- about Michael Servetus, about Rev John Murray, about Capek and the flower communion, about Frances David, about Florence Nightengale, about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many more. But those are real people stories. Do we need a more mythological story? I did propose one -- 'way up near the top of this thread. It's from a book by Terry Pratchett called Small Gods. I think it explains what we are trying to do by being non-creedal -- we are trying to be hard to grab hold of, because when there's a big doorknob to grab hold of, people tend to open the door but then get hung up on the doorknob and never go thru the door. (a metaphore from discussions in the 60's started by The Doors of Perception.)
Alternately, Forrest Church's story about the cathedral with lots of different windows is a good story too.

Mike Hogue:

September 29, 2006 08:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kim: Gk Chesteron is famous for many great quips, one among them being that in America even the Catholics are Protestant.

et al:
I don't think that scholarly (academic)theological work can or should be understood as utterly separate from ecclesiological work (and popular religion). I'm sure this is not what Philocrites intended, but I'll take this as an opportunity nonetheless to belabor a point.

To be sure there is a difference (in voice, audience, style...)between academic and popular theology, but to interpret that difference as a chasm that cannot or should not be bridged is a perilous idea. And I think quite out of keeping with the liberal commitment to "the prophethood of all believers." Taken to its extreme conclusion, such a view seems to me to mean that critical, systematic reflection on our religious ideas doesn't really bear on the way we live religiously.

A case in point against this isolationist view of academic theological work is Pope Benedict's recent paper (the reaction to which was in my mind a profound distortion of the point he was making, which was ultimately about the need for faith to be critically examined and for religious life to be subject to the critiques of reason). Ideas, even (especially?)theological ones, influence life radically and can rend the world like bolts of lighting...or, dare I say it, like airplanes crashing into towers. And so the work of the theologian (even the academic theologian) has a huge bearing on religious life, and is responsible perhaps above all to be concerned with a tradition's faithful and just religious practice.

Even when theology is understood merely as critical reflection on a religious community's self-understanding, which to be sure is only one conception of the task, it inevitably becomes a part of the form of a religious community. Even on this limited take on the scope of theology, the theological enterprise and work in the churches exist in a mutually informative relationship. Theology may depend on and arise out of religious community, but religious community also depends upon and arises out of theological reflection.

Having said this, I think it is certainly the case, and agree completely with Philocrites on this, that a "renewal" or "reanimation" or "reformation" (or as Bill Baar recently put this, a "counter-reformation)of liberal religion is not the task of academic theologians alone.


September 29, 2006 09:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

My haranguing of Mike on the M/L blog re: dualistic metaphysics is an attempt to stress that the dominant Western pattern of thought is winding down (or to put it more bluntly, for some of us it ended with Kant). I realize that folks are always talking about the end of history, in one form or another. I believe we are living the end of what emerged from the Greeks 2500 years ago as love of wisdom. What does that have to do with the stories we tell?

Ghost stories are for Halloween, period. What about wisdom literature, as with Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes? Great stories. These are told today by the poets, as *literature* considered generally to include all the arts.

But we are living what will be the next great story, if there is to be a next of anything. Whether that story will emerge as part of the historical “God” story we cannot know.

I would like to second Mike’s insistence that theology makes a difference. (Is Sophia Fahs “It matters what we believe” still in the hymn book?)

The legitimacy of metaphor as something more than frivolity continues to receive philosophical attention. Donald Davidson says it’s an illusion, a linguistic mistake. Paul Ricoeur says, to exaggerate, it’s all that matters.

I know that Philocrites does not want to hear fish stories, even great ones. That means he’s choosing among what’s offered. Blindly? Carefully? His activity with this blog is evidence that his commitment is to the building up of community, so he’s not after entertainment. Does he know why not? Since Socrates’ unexamined life that’s not worth living, we have become aware of the alternatives.

Sure, stories can examine life in ways that exposition cannot. But when Wittgenstein shows me that the inner/outer paradigm I grew up with creates major confusions in understanding and communication, the consequent notion that “meaning” is this private pearl I harbor inside me that no one else knows falls with a great clatter.

LW puts it this way: Another person can have my pain. I now believe that. My everyday buries me in conventions that cause that realization to be a fleeting experience. Let someone write a story about how another person can have my pain—not as some paranormal extra-sensory perception, but as just the way things are for human being. I’m ready to hear that. Since I learned about it, in fact, I do hear it in some of the literature I encounter.


September 30, 2006 10:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Kim, thanks for these examples of the kinds of stories you had in mind. What I find interesting about them is that most of them function like parables: Even when they're historical or biographical, they usually are told to provoke a change in perception, a way of seeing possibilies differently.

Mike, academic or critical theology can influence a religious community and the larger world, but that doesn't mean that it does. (I take that as one of Dorrien's conclusions about a great deal of creative, insightful academic theology that never does find ecclesiological traction.)

For good or ill, a religious community does not depend on its scholars for its dynamism. Theologians go astray when they start to assume that their religious communities should pay more attention to them. Maybe they can't help themselves. But most of the rest of us do depend on teachers, facilitators, intermediaries, and story tellers to offer a compelling vision for our religious communities. Theologians have a stake in making their ideas available to these people. And, while in a perfect world I could say that it's preferable for the community's vision to conform to the scholarly consensus that passes for "truth" in academic circles at any given time, I'm not sure that this is all that desirable in the real world.

That's not because I'm some kind of anti-intellectual; it's because the "prophethood of all believers" also means that the church and all its people sometimes know things that academics do not.

I don't understand Rex. He could be saying something almost identical to what I'm saying, or he could be saying the exact opposite. Am I choosing "fish stories"? No. But I do not need to be a graduate student in philosophy in order to make some informed assessments of the truth and viability of competing claims. That's my point: Unitarian Universalists can discern the future of their religious movement without defering to the authority of philosophical elites and without wallowing in some anti-intellectual ditch. Mocking the concepts that other people are trying to use is not a charitable way to encourage intellectual growth.


September 30, 2006 11:15 AM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites: I am saying that I almost never see in a UU context such key concepts as "mind," "consciousness," "meaning," "self," used in an informed way. Instead they are still treated as if they were self-evident. Not.

I rarely see an indication that we have a problem explaining language with language. I seldom see any evidence of understanding that philosophy (that is, careful thought, not verbal mystifications) has undermined the claims of empiricism.

What just those few examples show me is that our frame of reference has crumbled. If you are happy living off the crumbs, what can I say. Since you desire a stronger UU movement, I suggest that pursuing antiquated conceptualizations, even while they can be cleverly and entertainly reconfigured in novel forms, offers little promise so long as they remain unquestioned.

In sum, a few philosophers are into some essential questions. If you want to wait until it all gets sorted out, what can I say. Sweet dreams?


September 30, 2006 11:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

Rex, unless we're trying to entice more philosophers to join, what's the point?

Just kidding. But unless these intellectual discoveries have ramifications out in the social world, from a Pragmatic point of view they just don't have purchase. More to the point, I'd say that what's happened instead is that some of the old words have picked up new meanings for many people that do connect with some of the newer philosophical insights. But there's no compelling reason to fashion a religion that some coterie of intellectuals would approve of.

I don't mean to minimize the importance of thinking clearly and critically about the myths we live by, however. In fact, I wrote an essay about it.


September 30, 2006 01:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites: It is true that it is pointless to offer suggestive answers to questions that are not being asked.

I operate on the assumption that there are enough folks who know there's no pie in the sky, even while it would be great were it so, wondering if there's an alternative.

I tell you, from my recent years in the classroom, that the 20s-30s generation is being trained by ideas that do make most UU *theology* a mockery. My local church is nearly all gray-haired. Is that out in the social world enough?

I get a chance to test myself tomorrow. I have asked some friends to read my remarks over the past couple weeks. Those I have heard from have warned me it is "dense." I'll let you know whether I fall on my face--wouldn't be the first time.


September 30, 2006 01:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

PS. I'm a big fan of Harvard emeritus philosopher Stanley Cavell. He came up via analytic philosophy, had his mind changed by Wittgenstein, and now claims that RWEmerson is a first-rate philosopher. Cavell also likes stories. Some of his most recent works relate film to philosophy.

Check out any of his stuff on Thoreau and Emerson. He's the one who prompted my thesis topic (not personally, I've never met him).

Some of his philo. colleagues do not like his popular appeal. I'm having an issue getting the faculty to accept my topic as "RWE's epistemology." A few others, in addition to Cavell, see that maybe he does have an epistemology. I know I am seeing RWE in a whole new light.


September 30, 2006 08:56 PM | Permalink for this comment

If it's down-to-earth, grounded stories that we need to rely upon to save us, here's ours:

We are not the anything-goes, follow-your-bliss New Agers, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the Thoreauesque transcendental loners, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the religious humanists or intellectual atheists or logical positivists, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the wounded ex-Christians escaping religion done badly, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the countercultural rebels and firebrands, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the product or continuing tradition of 19th- or 20th-century intellectual rebellions against the prevailing religious suppositions of those eras, though we may appeal to some who would continue to rebel. We are not a community of prophetic scolds whose duty is to publicly name and deplore every sin of the larger society, though we may appeal to some who think of themselves as Jeremiahs.

What we are is what we have always been: the liberal Puritans. We are the First (literally!) Churches in Plymouth, Salem and Boston, and their hundreds of affiliated daughter congregations, still alive and still offering the same vibrant and valid witness that we have for almost 400 years. We stand for redemption by the unlimited power of love rather than a selective gift of grace; by the power of self-improvement rather than the magic of special doctrines; by the diligent nurture of righteous character rather than the passive acceptance of God's favor; by the unceasing search for knowledge, because there is no divine principle which can be contrary to truth; by diligent and selfless service to society, especially its least fortunate members, in humble gratitude for and stewardship of whatever earthly blessings and privileges we may enjoy.

Our history repeatedly shows that the farther away we wander from this, our core identity, the weaker and more enervated we become. But by the same token, in each generation we discover anew that this core is what makes us who we are, and who we have always been, and that when we return to it, we find renewed strength.


October 1, 2006 10:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

Fausto: For a description of 400 years in 400 words, it's a bell-ringer. I feel an identity with what is admirable in the Puritans. However, were I living in 1630, I'd rather be with the Elizabethan Pilgrims in Plymouth than with the shipmates off the good ship Arbella.

And you might hear from the folks in Watertown, MA, that their congregation is 24 hours older than First Church Boston, even while they cannot match the PR value of Plymouth, Salem, and Boston.


October 1, 2006 02:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

I've launched a new thread for responses to Fausto's story.


October 1, 2006 02:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

No doubt I'll hear from Watertown's pastor, at least if he can see through my blogospherical pseudonym. Not only does he teach UU History at ANTS, but he used to be the pastor of my church before his present gig in an even older pulpit.

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