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Tuesday, January 14, 1997

Authority in the Spirit: Developing a doctrine of the liberal church.

Every Unitarian Universalist at some point runs into the perennial question: "So, Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want?" The question sometimes arises not only for the newcomer, who finds after two months of regular attendance on Sunday mornings that she still cannot pinpoint the religious vision of the church, but also for the child in the Sunday School who finds himself at a loss for words when a friend asks what a Unitarian Universalist believes. When I was teaching second grade students at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, a little boy announced that he didn't have to believe in anything because he was a Unitarian Universalist. On one level, I suppose I had to commend him for his audacity, but the comment troubled me much more than it charmed me. Apparently the problem has troubled many other Unitarians and Universalists for more than a century. However clearly individual Unitarian Universalists understand their personal faith commitments, Unitarian Universalists apparently have no clearly articulated sense of the faith that binds them together. Some Unitarian Universalists proudly celebrate this lack of common commitment in their religious movement, but other Unitarian Universalists recognize that a tradition which celebrates only individualism has no reason to exist institutionally.

I suggest that the uncertainty about what unites Unitarian Universalists can best be resolved by articulating a doctrine of the church — an interpretation of the meaning of the participation of individuals in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Although the theological diversity of the Unitarian Universalist Association makes any kind of denominational consensus about such meaning virtually impossible, individual congregations and their ministers must develop some conception of the church and its mission. If the liberal church has a reason to exist, religious liberals must take seriously the task of articulating that reason. This task of definition gives shape and focus to the answers liberal ministers and congregations can give to the questions, What do you believe?, What do you intend to do?, and Why should I join you? In other words, the doctrine of the church formulated by religious liberals expresses the authority by which the church pursues its mission. The doctrine of the liberal church gives Unitarian Universalists a standard by which to judge the success or failure — the faithfulness — of the community to its religious vision. Without such a doctrine, it is unclear why the church should exist or why women and men should feel called to commit their lives to ministry within it.

An important distinction must be made between a doctrine of the church and a creedal definition of ultimate reality. Unitarian Universalists who strongly defend the anti-creedalism of their association and its member churches are defending an important legacy of the liberal heritage. But developing a doctrine of the central concerns of the church is not necessarily the same as developing a creed. In fact, a liberal ecclesiology may turn out to be more structural than definitive when it comes to ultimate truth claims. A doctrine of the liberal church can offer a set of related terms for understanding what Unitarian Universalists are doing in the midst of their diversity without shoe-horning that diversity into a creedal formula. However, no single doctrine of the liberal church can articulate the mission of every liberal church. While each congregation must attempt to express its sense of mission, the theological diversity of the UUA makes the creation of a meaningful doctrine of the church at the general level virtually impossible.

Describing authority

One way to begin to develop a doctrine of the church is to attempt to describe the church. The Rev. David O. Rankin provides a useful starting point by identifying five sources of the minister's public authority in the Unitarian Universalist tradition:

  • the academic authority conveyed by education;
  • the denominational authority conveyed by acknowledged fellowship with other Unitarian Universalist ministers;
  • the authority of tradition conveyed in many ways by the pulpit itself and its place in the ongoing worship life of the church;
  • the authority of the community conveyed in the rite of ordination and in the installation of the minister by the congregation;
  • and the authority of the minister's personal faith conveyed in part by the minister's sense of vocation (58-60).

Rankin's list proceeds in a descriptive mode: without commenting on the theological significance of any of these sources, he recognizes the sociological significance that both ministers and congregants acknowledge about ministerial authority. The minister is a professional by training. The minister is recognizably Unitarian Universalist by virtue of her fellowship with Unitarian Universalist ministers and her public role as the celebrant of Unitarian Universalist values in the worship of the congregation. The minister is called by the congregation to its ministry. The minister is respected to some degree for her personal vocation, and certainly depends on that call for an important dimension of her self-identification as a minister.

The meaning of these sources of authority, however, is both contested and confusing in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. For example, the professional dimension of the ministry confuses many people. Is the minister's role analogous to the psychologist or to the scholar, or is it something distinctive? Just before I left my job to begin my studies at Harvard Divinity School, a co-worker asked me: "If UUs can believe anything they want, what exactly do you have to study?" I fielded similar questions from many fellow congregants as well. Confusion about the relationship between minister and congregation abounds in Unitarian Universalist circles. Some Unitarian Universalists view the relationship of minister to congregation as a business relationship in which the minister is the employee of the congregation; I have even heard the word "hireling" used to describe a minister. These examples suggest that ministers and congregations may need to spend more time clarifying the quality of their relationship to each other and to the mission of the church.

Using Rankin's list of sources of ministerial authority, we may begin to catalog some key terms for the construction of an explicit doctrine of the liberal church. These terms may seem obvious. There are:

  • individuals together in a social structure called the church;
  • traditions which provide continuity over time for the social structure of the church;1
  • ideals or motivating interests sensed as shared goals by which the congregation and minister of a church understand their successes and failures;
  • a world distinct from the church in which the people of the church live and which they seek to understand and affect;
  • and, that dimension of individual experience which remains private and forever distinct from communal experience.

In summary, there is a group of people; a tradition; that people's animating hopes; the group's general socio-historical context; and the individuality of its members. A liberal doctrine of the church attempts to describe the proper understanding of the relationship of these aspects of the church.

A theological description

From the descriptive analysis, we may move to other forms of analysis to understand the mission and function of the church. One approach would be historical, attempting to understand the evolution of key factors in the way Unitarian Universalists have come to see the relationships between aspects of the church. A related approach attempts to make use of contemporary theological language, identifying the distinguishing characteristics of the liberal church in its ideal form. I will begin with one theological model and then proceed to a general historical analysis.

James Luther Adams suggests one set of terms for understanding the relationship of the aspects of the church. Adams identifies three tenets of a free person's faith. First:

Our ultimate dependence for being and freedom is upon a creative power and upon processes not of our own making . . . Free women and men put their faith in a creative reality that is re-creative.

In other words, the free person acknowledges that freedom only takes shape within the course of larger historical processes and in the natural world in which people find themselves. The creative power that operates in the shaping of freedom in the world may be identified as God, but however such power is named, it represents the ultimate concern of the religious liberal. Second:

The commanding, sustaining, transforming reality finds its richest focus in meaningful human history, in free, cooperative effort for the common good.

The free person affirms that the ultimate good takes shape in the free and cooperative pursuit of justice and mutuality in human relations. Third:

The achievement of freedom in community requires the power of organization and the organization of power. ("A Faith for the Free" 48-54)

In other words, the free person also asserts the necessity and virtue of institutional form in the pursuit of freedom.

Using this model, the church is understood to be 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. The church is not just any institution which engages in creative, mutual human activity. Its distinguishing characteristic is its deliberate attempt in worship to orient itself to what Alfred North Whitehead describes as

the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility , and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest. (Science and the Modern World 192)

The church is therefore that specific organizational form through which people shape their personal and collective concerns in reference to this ultimate concern.

Adams once drafted an ecumenical study paper entitled "The Ethical Reality and Function of the Church" in which he writes that "the church as a concrete social entity2 includes all those forms of organization that provide patterns of experience and behavior for men and women who are committed to a common loyalty to Jesus Christ" (69). While the christocentric focus of the sentence may not be useful for many Unitarian Universalists, the structure of this description should be. Structurally, the definition identifies: (1) forms of organization which (2) pattern human experience and behavior in the lives of people (3) who are committed (4) to a common loyalty which takes a particular distinctive object.

The "forms of organization" in the social reality of the church can be understood as the organization of power in the church: its institutional structure and worship forms, its stories and educational forms, its groups and committees, all of which must be recognized as powerful manifestations of the group's values. No aspect of the church's form and structure must be assumed to be impotent or irrelevant. These forms provide "patterns of experience and behavior," which can be understood as the power of organization in the church to shape the lives of the people — and to shape the world beyond. The church, by the very fact that it is an organization of power, affects people and the world. The church not only organizes power for certain ends, it becomes powerful itself as an actor in the world.

The members of the church "are committed to a common loyalty." One might ask if this is not redundant, but the members are individually committed to a shared loyalty which takes decisive shape for Christians in Jesus Christ. Three important elements stand out in this final phrase. In the liberal church, the individuality of persons retains full significance as the source of the commitment from which the church draws its collective power. This individual power of commitment takes shape in the liberal church — it acquires form — in the covenant which expresses the common loyalty of the community. Individual commitment, from the liberal perspective, is properly an expression of individual freedom; through a covenant, free individuals enter a common loyalty in order to give proper form to that freedom. The third element is the complicated element for Unitarian Universalists. For Christians, the focus on Jesus Christ provides a specific and yet also metaphorically complex image through which to consider the creative power of God. Unitarian Universalists resist identifying any single image with the divine creativity, but it helps to notice that the Christians' common loyalty to Jesus furnishes abstract values such as "the love of God" or "salvation" in addition to the potential for idolatry. In other words, the focus of the common loyalty in Christianity is the appearance of ultimate principles in a human life. Although Unitarian Universalists do not share a common loyalty to Jesus Christ, they do recognize that abstract values and ideal hopes are meaningless if they are not somehow capable of embodiment in human life, in history. For Unitarian Universalists, the common loyalty needs examples as well as abstract absolutes. The commitment of individuals to a common loyalty in the Unitarian Universalist tradition requires common loyalty to the divine creativity as it has taken shape and continues to take shape in human lives.

Adams's theology is sometimes considered "pneumatological" rather than "christological" because he emphasizes the dynamic activity of the Holy Spirit (the pneumatos) as the primary form of divine life. In other words, according to Max L. Stackhouse, it is the "power of life that moves where it will in human experience — bringing new meaning and wholeness" which reveals divine creativity in the world ("Editor's Introduction," On Being Human Religiously by James Luther Adams, xxii). If Unitarian Universalists have moved away from a christocentric theology, one way to re-conceptualize our religious orientation is pneumatological.

Authority in the spirit becomes the decisive, ever-active form of the divine creativity in the world as it is recognized by Unitarian Universalists. Ideally, the church nurtures an attitude of ultimate optimism for human life enriched by the creative power. The church takes its shape in those organized forms of human life which are dedicated to the maintenance and growth of experiences and behaviors that extend freedom and mutuality in the world. The church therefore takes its motivation from the evidence of the Spirit's movements toward freedom in history, in contemporary experience, in creative endeavors, and in the continuing lure of the possible.

Adams's doctrine of the liberal church may not recommend itself entirely to all Unitarian Universalists. The obvious continuities with Christian tradition and theology in his writing may dismay some Unitarian Universalists, but to some extent such continuities characterize almost every aspect of Unitarian Universalist life and deserve more careful consideration from Unitarian Universalists. We have inherited major features of our polity, a substantial number of our ideas, and many of our heroes from the biblical traditions — and any historically-alert expression of Unitarian Universalist values must somehow take this heritage into account. Examined or not, the authority of tradition persists as a very real factor in people's experience even in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Alfred North Whitehead, an astute observer of liberal religion, pragmatically observes that "in so far as . . . an appeal to tradition can be made with complete honesty, without any shadow of evasion, there is an enormous gain in popular effectiveness" in religion (Adventures of Ideas 171). When Unitarian Universalists identify a "crisis of authority," a "loss of depth," or simple confusion about Unitarian Universalist identity, I believe they are primarily pointing to a collapse of consensus regarding what occupies the focus of our common loyalty. There are real historical reasons for this collapse, to which I will turn next.

One of the primary factors in this sense of lost consensus is our contemporary failure to engage the history of our tradition. In reviewing Unitarian history in particular, I wish to suggest that liberals need not insist on conformity of interpretation when seeking some clarity about our common vision within the congregational setting. Our immediate tradition provides examples of freedom enriched by institutional form as well as thwarted by it; our tradition also provides examples of misplaced faith in individuals, processes, and institutions. Our tradition, stretching back into Christian history and the biblical stories, in other words, provides examples of human success and human failure in the pursuit of meaning. Richly perceived, our past can provide some sense of perspective about the difficulty people face when they seek to discern the proper object of their faith. As Conrad Wright observes, "our distinctiveness and our cohesion [as Unitarian Universalists] are to be found not in the faith we profess, but in the fact that we profess it in the context of a particular historical tradition which belongs to us and no one else" (Walking Together 101). If we believe that meaning can take shape in human history, we should look to our own history as a major source of affirmation in that belief.

The history of religious authority in Unitarianism

At the risk of massive oversimplification, I wish to review certain key moments in Unitarian history in terms of their primary theological emphases as a way of introducing the development of current conceptions of religious authority in Unitarian Universalism.3 I will consider the historical shifts in the Unitarian understanding of three central terms: revelation, tradition, and exegesis. Revelation is here understood to be the disclosure of religious truth; tradition is understood to be the mode in which an understanding of revelation is conveyed over time in a community; exegesis is understood to be the manner by which religious truth is interpreted.

Unitarianism emerged historically from the Radical Reformation and inherited from Puritanism certain key assumptions about Christianity. One might say that the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone identified salvation as something that happens within an individual, in contrast to the Catholic view that salvation happens to an individual through sacramental participation in the church. Protestants argued "that the church is essentially the community of those who have faith, which is but their way of saying the unity of the church is Christ," whereas Catholic ecclesiology had described a sacramental system which offered "supernatural participation in the divine life" (Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, 53, 52). This profound shift in understanding introduced the following radical Protestant conclusions, which Unitarianism has largely retained:

(1) the visible church consisting of canons, councils, and Pope was fallible; (2) the Roman Bishop has no scriptural claim to primacy; (3) the office of preaching should supplant the sacramental office of priesthood; (4) every Christian possesses the "keys" of teaching and preaching, although for the sake of public order some persons may be set aside; (5) the sacramental system as conceived in Roman Catholicism is unbiblical. (Harvey 53)

Liberals in New England Congregationalism shared a legacy derived from the Puritans that emphasized biblical authority interpreted by faithful individuals; the centrality of preaching in worship; the covenant as the basis of church governance; and the priesthood of all believers. Revelation was completed in Jesus Christ and transmitted through the biblical tradition, but proto-unitarian exegesis was critical and Protestant. In other words, like their Puritan ancestors, early American liberals pursued a rational approach to scriptural authority and explicitly acknowledged the potential for error in the tradition of the church.

The Unitarian controversy early in the nineteenth century culminated in the division of liberal churches from orthodox churches in Massachusetts. The liberals, it must be stressed, did not seek this division and felt that separation was forced on them by the orthodox; the liberals, in other words, did not seek separation from the Christian community.4 The controversy centered on the scriptural authority for certain creedal statements. From the liberal point of view, the orthodox insisted that Christian faith requires conformity to narrow doctrinal statements which the liberals felt to be unscriptural and uncharitable. The Unitarians continued to insist on the authority of revelation in the Bible, and on the efficacy of reason in recognizing the truths of that revelation. William Ellery Channing did not argue that trinitarianism was irrational, for example; he argued that the scriptures do not reasonably support trinitarianism.5 At its origins, American Unitarianism identified religious authority with revelation recorded in the Bible. Reason served as the primary mode of exegesis, and tradition provided the revelation which was to be interpreted. In other words, even though early American Unitarianism stands out for its willingness to adopt unusual doctrinal conclusions and for its confidence in the critical-historical approach to scripture, its general understanding of religious authority is fairly conventionally Protestant, albeit influenced by Enlightenment thought.

The Transcendentalist controversy initiated by Ralph Waldo Emerson's Divinity School Address changed the terms of the debate and introduced a strongly Romantic tendency to Unitarian religion. Emerson had earlier left the liberal ministry, having objected to the requirement that he celebrate the Lord's Supper.6 His discomfort with the Lord's Supper does not seem to have been his only reason for resigning: Emerson's high regard for "self-reliance" left him little affinity for the communal and pastoral dimensions of the ministry. Emerson's mature writing reveals no compelling vision of the role or nature of the church, or of communities in general.7 When Emerson delivered his famous Divinity School Address, he emphasized the central significance of individual intuition unchecked by tradition or reason. Although certain key themes of transcendentalism found immediate place in some Unitarian sermons (especially those of George Ripley and Theodore Parker), Emerson's full impact on Unitarianism came later, through Parker's legacy and the radicals associated with the Free Religion movement.

In the long run, transcendentalism shifted the location of authoritative revelation away from tradition and toward individual intuition. (Transcendentalism remained a minority position among Unitarians until mainstream Unitarianism finally assimilated a version of it at the end of the century.) Although Parker identified a place for the critical "understanding" as a counterbalance to the intuitions of the direct insight, most transcendentalists tended to ignore the critical dimension in religion.8 Tradition had been undermined as central to religious authority, while direct intuition of religious truths took center stage; reason tended to atrophy as a primary category of religious exegesis, and a certain amount of rhapsodizing took its place.

After mid-century, Unitarianism was shaped by a moderate group of ministers who promoted institutions and traditions as valuable and necessary. Henry Whitney Bellows, a critic of the transcendentalists, vigorously promoted the development of a strong denominational structure for the first time, and argued that institutions are "the only instruments, except literature and the blood, by which the riches of the ages, the experience and wisdom of humanity, are handed down" (quoted in Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists 89). Taking an organic and somewhat evolutionary view of history, Frederick Henry Hedge agreed with the transcendentalists that revelation is first internal and personal, but argued that "it may become, as personal or ecclesiastical authority, external," always subject to and dependent on new revelation (quoted in Robinson, 103). James Freeman Clarke took an essentially pragmatic view of institutions, and argued that the church was vastly more effective than pure individualism in pursuing the work of religion. Most importantly, Clarke devised the distinguishing statement of late-nineteenth century Unitarianism faith: the belief in the "progress of mankind onward and upward forever" (105). Mainstream Unitarianism came to identify revelation as individual, but asserted that individual revelation was cumulative as it became externalized in the tradition of the church. Reason served essentially as a reforming faculty in the religious community; exegesis became primarily ethical.

A group of radicals influenced by transcendentalism opposed Bellows's denominationalism, and eventually became identifiable as the Free Religious Association. The controversy over the Free Religion movement involved an argument over the sufficiency of individual insight as a basis for true religion. The Free Religious Association attempted to organize radical Unitarians and others in a movement that thoroughly disavowed creeds and supernaturalism. Two distinctive features are important for our study of authority: The radicals asserted the absolute authority of the individual in religion, embodying, as David Robinson writes, "Tom Paine's dictum that 'my own mind is my own church'" (The Unitarians and the Universalists, 109). They also considered science — by which they meant evolutionary naturalism — to be the proper model for religious inquiry. For Free Religionists, revelation was thoroughly individual, with no institutional manifestation. They adopted scientific inquiry as the model for religious exegesis and disregarded the institutional dimension of tradition. As human tradition ceased to be normative, Free Religionists came to identify the laws of evolutionary nature as normative for human life.

As the radical position came to influence the Unitarianism of the Midwest, two competing versions of Unitarianism came in conflict in the denomination's National Conference. The eastern Unitarianism dominated by Christian theists and the midwestern Unitarianism influenced more heavily by varieties of radicalism reached a compromise in 1894 which introduced what has become the central feature of contemporary Unitarian Universalism: institutionalized individualism. The preamble of the new National Conference concluded:

The Conference recognizes the fact that its constituency is Congregational in tradition and polity. Therefore, it declares that nothing in this constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims. (Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists, 122.)

The binding element in the work of the National Conference is each individual's "general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims" rather than a common understanding of religious truth. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Unitarians tended to identify revelation as individual moral and scientific acuity. Exegesis was primarily practical and ethical: reason determined what best to do. At the time, Protestant Liberalism and Unitarianism were enjoying the zenith of the liberal outlook, and due to their tremendous confidence in progress — "upward and onward forever" — tradition ceased to generate as much interest as the future.

Although the early twentieth century saw major changes in denominational structure and in theological emphasis as Humanism came to prominence (essentially as an institutionalized and developed version of Free Religious principles), this historical overview should be sufficient to illustrate the contending trends in Unitarian thinking about religious authority. On the one hand, institutional coherence has been emphasized as a necessary feature of religious life. Institutional commitments are evident in the consensus-seeking tendency represented by Channing and later by Bellows, Clarke, and Hedge. On the other hand, emphasis on creative individual insight characterizes the revolt of the Transcendentalists and Free Religionists. A second contending trend is also apparent: The source of religious truth appears on the one hand as something clearly differentiated from human beings and the world (in the theism of Unitarian Christians) and on the other hand as something identifiable with human beings and the world (in Transcendentalism, Free Religion, and Humanism). A third trend centers on questions of interpretation: rationalism characterizes Channing's Christianity as much as John Dewey's Humanism, while intuitionism characterizes Transcendentalist mysticism as well as nineteenth-century Unitarian interest in mesmerism and spiritualism.

In terms of my three organizing principles, the following tensions appear in Unitarian history. Unitarians have debated whether revelation — the disclosure of religious truth — suggests transcendent factors in human experience or suggests strictly natural factors. They have debated whether tradition — the way Unitarians convey their understanding of religious truth over time — requires institutional form and some degree of consensus about fundamental issues or merely requires shared practical goals. They have debated whether exegesis — the interpretation of religious truth — is primarily intuitive and personalized or is primarily rational and subject to others' scrutiny. Of course, as with all debates, numerous shades of interpretation have emerged within the Unitarian tradition regarding each of these contested terms.

The crisis of authority in Unitarianism

In its various guises, nineteenth century Unitarianism celebrated the ascendancy of liberal values in American culture. Despite the controversy surrounding each new "latest form of infidelity" during the century, mainstream Unitarianism successfully integrated its controversies back into the body of the "living tradition." Meanwhile, Unitarian confidence was bolstered by the fact that their optimism at the end of the nineteenth century about human progress, scientific advance, moral reform, and economic liberalism was shared with a broad range of Protestant Christians and unchurched liberals. From the 1890s to the end of the 1920s, theological liberalism was intellectually dominant in American Protestantism in versions of the Social Gospel (which attracted keen interest from Universalists and Unitarians) and "Chicago School" reconstructionism (The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought 327).

Shortly after the end of the first World War, however, liberalism faltered in the culture at large and in Unitarianism in particular. The shock of the war called into question liberal optimism about human nature and about the possibility of progress in history. Neo-orthodoxy, with its negative assessments of human nature and progress, had grown out of European dismay at the crisis of liberalism, and the new theology soon swept American Protestantism. In certain respects, liberalism's moment had passed. Unitarians found themselves in a deep malaise in the early 1930s. David Robinson identifies the period as "the dark night of the soul of American Unitarianism" (The Unitarians and the Universalists 162). In large part, the sense of crisis emerged from the uncertainty Unitarians felt about the validity of their religious values in this new age; if liberalism essentially amounted to a faith in the "progress of mankind upward and onward forever," the Great Depression and the World War were not encouraging signs.

Although a variety of factors helped restore a sense of vitality to Unitarianism by the mid-twentieth century, the basic question has continued to challenge Unitarian Universalists: Are Unitarian Universalist values adequate for the times? If they are adequate, what are they? The second "dark night of the soul" for Unitarian Universalism came in the 1970s, when a rapid decline in members and low morale in the aftermath of the social turmoil of the 1960s confronted Unitarian Universalists.9 Since the mid-1980s, membership has again grown, and many signs of vitality are present. There remains, however, a vigorous debate about the distinctive features of Unitarian Universalist religion.

Some of the newer religious perspectives in Unitarian Universalism are not essentially "liberal" in any sense beyond an affirmation of "epistemological individualism," or religious relativism, as the sociologist Richard Wayne Lee has observed ("Strained Bedfellows" 22). Unitarian Universalists are asking whether anything besides epistemological individualism unites them.

In general, mainstream Unitarianism in the nineteenth century tended to incorporate more radical impulses gradually into the tradition, preserving not only conservative dimensions of the past but radical dimensions as well. Because the moderate majority of Unitarian congregations tended to regard their history as their "living tradition" in spite of the vigorous anti-traditionalism of the radicals, they preserved some sense of historical continuity with at least certain features of the religious past.

Contemporary Unitarian Universalists must seek to acquaint themselves and each other with the history of the liberal religious past if they are to find at least some common ground. Our tradition of sharp differences of theological opinion is too deeply embedded for theological language to produce the necessary common ground, even within single congregations. But ministers in particular must attend to the liberal religious tradition — not just as a history of protest and revolt, but also as a history of covenants and sacrifices and organized action — in order to provide at least a basic level of shared identity beyond simple individualism.

I am essentially advocating a form of deliberate moderatism to liberal ministers. Religious authority, for liberals, includes the tension between independence and community and between reason and intuition. Even the prophetic dimension of the ministry depends on maintaining some relationship to the traditions and forms of the religious community. Ministers should be committed not only to the emergence of meaningful novelty in human life, but also to the integrity of the community that makes meaningful novelty possible. On a practical level, the liberal church should attend sympathetically to the emergence of novel forms of religious and secular expression, but should introduce these novel forms of expression into the forms of organization of the church only to the extent that continuity remains a significant feature of the congregation's self-perception. In other words, history must be pursued as a story which includes vital connections to the past as part of the experience of the possible. Without this sense of the vital and invigorating tensions in the history of faith, Unitarian Universalists have nothing but abstract debate to breathe life into liberalism. The spirit bloweth where it will, but if we do not learn how to raise the sails and steady the boat, the spirit will whistle meaninglessly in our ears.


I have attempted to approach the problem of authority in Unitarian Universalism using three interrelated approaches. A descriptive approach identifies the existence of vaguely-understood sources of authority in the present reality of the church. A theological approach provides one attempt to structure those sources of authority in a meaningful ideal form. An historical approach identifies key tensions in the evolving tradition of religious liberalism, and seeks to emphasize the value of continuity in a dynamic tradition. These approaches have suggested the following conclusions:

The church involves the following elements, apparent to sociological or descriptive identification: a group of people; a tradition; that people's animating hopes; the group's general socio-historical context; and the individuality of its members. Theological analysis attempts to relate the forms of organization within the group to its ideals, providing both a critical method and a unifying aim to the life of the group. James Luther Adams provides one approach by describing the liberal church as the community of free people joined in the worship of the creative power which comes to life in human society through the expansion of just and mutual relations among people. Religious authority, in this model, is authority in the spirit, discernible in the organization of power in the service of freedom as well as in the assertion of individual creativity.

Historical analysis affirms continuity as an essential element in the organization of the power which enables human freedom. Sensitivity to the living tradition includes awareness of the dynamics in history which both humble and encourage our efforts to build free communities, and provides a sense of common ground deeper than the passing fads of theological controversy.

These dimensions, then, may serve usefully in shaping Unitarian Universalist communities: basic acknowledgement of the multiple sources of authority experienced by people in the social fact of the church; theological study of the relationships between the organizational forms of the church and its ultimate commitments; and historical sensitivity to the dynamics of the tradition and the essential dialectic between continuity and novelty.


Written for "Introduction to Theological Education for the Ministry," Professors Cheryl Giles, Nancy Richardson, and Darryl Smaw, Harvard Divinity School, January 14, 1997. This essay is the intellectual property of Christopher L. Walton and must be fully and properly cited when used as a source in your own writing or you are committing plagiarism. The proper citation is:

Walton, Christopher L. "Authority in the Spirit: Developing a Doctrine of the Liberal Church." Philocrites. 14 Jan 1997. <>.

1. If the word "tradition" frightens some Unitarian Universalists as bearing the freight of authoritarianism, let me suggest that among our traditions are the celebration of freedom, the practice of democratic governance, and the veneration of heroes of the liberal spirit. Tradition is not necessarily authoritarian. (Return to text.)

2. In addition to the social reality of the church, Adams identifies two other aspects of the nature of the church which I will not explicitly examine in this paper. Those aspects are the invisible church, which is in part the ideal image of the church, and the kingdom of God, which is not the church, but which is rather the fulfilled vision of the divine purpose toward which the church strives. (Return to text.)

3. I am overlooking Universalism at the moment due to the apparent preference among contemporary Unitarian Universalist writers for the Unitarian past. The UUA essentially adopted Unitarian polity in the merger of 1961, and much of the discussion about Unitarian Universalist authority and faith continues to develop Unitarian rather than Universalist themes. One possible explanation is that Universalist history, prior to the twentieth century, has not fit neatly into the dominant Unitarian Universalist story about our origins, which tends to emphasize individualism and theological novelty. For whatever reasons, Universalist theology has played a much smaller role in determining the general outlines of contemporary Unitarian Universalist thinking. (Return to text.)

4. See Conrad Wright, "Introduction," Channing, Emerson, Parker: Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism, 6-10; David M. Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists, 9-14, 25-33. (Return to text.)

5. See especially William Ellery Channing, "Unitarian Christianity," Channing, Emerson, Parker, ed. by Conrad Wright, 48-69. The first part of Channing's argument focuses on the status of scripture and reason; Channing then proceeds to argue for the unity of God and the distinct unity of Jesus Christ. Enlightenment thinking strongly influenced the Unitarian understanding of "reason," however, and this Enlightenment influence begins the long relationship of Unitarianism and modernism. (Return to text.)

6. Although Emerson claimed that there was insufficient scriptural evidence for the institution of the Lord's Supper as a perpetual celebration, and that refined sensibilities found the use of the elements in the communion highly offensive, few scholars believe that Emerson resigned from the parish ministry primarily because of an objection to the communion ritual. David M. Robinson observes that "[Emerson's] struggle was less to change institutions than to free himself and others from them" ("The Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Introductory Historical Essay," 17). (Return to text.)

7. See Emerson's resignation sermon in Volume 4 of The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. by Albert J. von Frank, 185-194. Robinson's insightful commentary on the end of Emerson's ministry appears in the introductory essay to Volume 1. (Return to text.)

8. I am indebted to Bart Gould, By Whose Authority? An Historical Study of the Problem of Authority in American Unitarianism and a Suggested Solution, 25-44, for my discussion of the impact of Parker and the Free Religion movement in particular. (Return to text.)

9. It is worth noting that the primary interest in developing a doctrine of the liberal church seems to emerge during these times of institutional crisis. James Luther Adams began articulating the major tenets of his ecclesiology in the late 1930s in a series of articles for the Journal of Liberal Religion (collected in On Being Human Religiously as "Guiding Principles for a Free Faith"). Adams played a major role in the "renaissance" of the American Unitarian Association not only as a theologian but also as a practical churchman, through his work in creating the Commission on Appraisal.

During the second "dark night of the soul," a number of Unitarian Universalists focused on the doctrine of the liberal church, including Bart Gould, By Whose Authority? An Historical Study of the Problem of Authority in American Unitarianism and a Suggested Solution (1972), Wesley V. Hromatko, Onward and Upward?: The Liberal Church, the Liberal Ministry, and Whitehead's Theory of History (1973), Charles Scot Giles, Democratic Faith and Unitarian Universalism: Future Directions for the Liberal Church (1977), and Patrick Thomas O'Neill, Reclaiming Discipleship: A Doctrine of Liberal Church and Ministry (1979).

Other contributions to liberal ecclesiology include Joseph Barth, Toward a Doctrine of the Liberal Church (1956), and Conrad Wright, Walking Together (1989). Return to text.)

Works cited

James Luther Adams. "A Faith for the Free." Together We Advance. Ed. by Stephen H. Fritchman. Boston: Beacon, 1946. Reprinted (alt.) in James Luther Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers. Ed. by George K. Beach. Boston: Beacon, 1986, 43-56.

———. "Guiding Principles for a Free Faith." On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays in Religion and Society. Ed. by Max L. Stackhouse. Second ed. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1976, 3-20.

——— and the Chicago Ecumenical Discussion Group. "The Ethical Reality and Function of the Church." Unitarian Universalist Christian 50:1-2 (1995: Spring/Summer): 68-82.

Joseph Barth. Toward a Doctrine of the Liberal Church. The Minns Lectures for 1956. Boston: Minns Lectureship Committee, [1956].

George K. Beach. "Introduction." The Prophethood of All Believers. By James Luther Adams. Ed. by George K. Beach. Boston: Beacon, 1986, 1-30.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. [Sermon CLXII.] The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. by Albert J. von Frank. Volume 4. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1989, 185-194.

Charles Scot Giles. Democratic Faith and Unitarian Universalism: Future Directions for the Liberal Church. Unpub. diss. Chicago: Meadville/ Lombard Theological School, 1977.

Bart Gould. By Whose Authority? An Historical Study of the Problem of Authority in American Unitarianism and a Suggested Solution. Unpub. diss. Chicago: Meadville/ Lombard Theological School, 1972.

Van A. Harvey. A Handbook of Theological Terms. New York: Collier, 1964.

Judith L. Hoehler. "The Preacher as Prophet: Preaching and the Corporate Dimension." Transforming Words: Six Essays on Preaching. Ed. by William F. Schulz. Second ed. Boston: Skinner House, 1996, 79-100.

Wesley V. Hromatko. Onward and Upward?: The Liberal Church, the Liberal Ministry, and Whitehead's Theory of History. Unpub. diss. Chicago: Meadville/ Lombard Theological School, 1973.

Richard Wayne Lee. "Strained Bedfellows: Pagans, New Agers, and 'Starchy Humanists' in Unitarian Universalism." Sociology of Religion 56:4 (1995): 379-396. Reprinted in Religious Humanism 30:1-2 (1996): 7-29.

Alistair E. McGrath, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Oxford, UK, and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993.

Patrick Thomas O'Neill. Reclaiming Discipleship: A Doctrine of Liberal Church and Ministry. Unpub. diss. Chicago: Meadville/ Lombard Theological School, 1979.

David O. Rankin, "From the Masthead to the Hatches: The Sources of Authority in the Liberal Pulpit." Transforming Words: Six Essays on Preaching. Ed. by William F. Schulz. Second ed. Boston: Skinner House, 1996, 49-61.

David M. Robinson. "The Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Introductory Historical Essay." The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. by Albert J. von Frank. Volume 1. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1989. 1-32.

David M. Robinson. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Denominations in America, Vol. 1. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Wade Clark Roof. Community and Commitment: Religious Plausibility in a Liberal Protestant Church. New York: Elsevier, 1977.

The Free Church in a Changing World: The Reports of the Commissions to the Churches and Fellowships of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston: Department of Adult Programs, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1963.

Unitarian Universalist Association Commission on Appraisal. Our Professional Ministry: Structure, Support and Renewal. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1992.

Alfred North Whitehead. Adventures of Ideas. (1933) New York: Free Press, 1967.

Alfred North Whitehead. Religion in the Making. (1926) "A Living Age Book." Cleveland, Oh.: Meridian, 1960.

Alfred North Whitehead. Science in the Modern World. The Lowell Lectures. (1925) New York: Free Press, 1967.

Conrad Wright. Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches. Boston: Skinner House, 1989.

Copyright © 1997 by Philocrites | Posted 14 January 1997 at 7:00 AM

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