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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Isaac Newton's anti-Trinitarianism in the news.

I planned to ignore Boston Globe op-ed columnist Jeff Jacoby's wildly anachronistic paean to Isaac Newton, whom he tried to offer as a poster boy for Intelligent Design advocates. But the letters to the editor in response to Jacoby bring up a peculiarity he failed to note: Newton was no poster boy for the "fundamentalists" of his day, and may not be an ideal paragon for religious conservatives today, either. MIT professor and Newton scholar Thomas Levenson calls attention to Newton's anti-Trinitarianism, for example:

Isaac Newton was no Christian in any orthodox sense, and his heretical views could have cost him dearly. During his Cambridge University years, Newton denied the divinity of the Trinity and the co-equal status of Jesus with God the Father. Newton kept quiet about his growing commitment to this Arian heresy, but even so it nearly lost him his job. . . .

Newton's religious and scientific views were both deeply embedded in the great issues of his time, now three centuries gone. Jeff Jacoby's attempt to give cover to his own views on science and religion today by invoking Newton as a kind of patron saint fails on many counts, including the fact that while Newton's specific religious beliefs are under challenge now, they were then, too.

("Isaac Newton, in his time — and ours," Thomas Levenson (second letter), Boston Globe 7.28.07; earlier: "A teacher with faith and reason," Jeff Jacoby [op-ed], Boston Globe 7.22.07; related: "Newton's views on the corruptions of scripture and the church," The Newton Project)

P.S. While I'm mentioning anachronisms, I'd also like to suggest that anti-Trinitarianism may actually be anachronistic in contemporary North American Unitarian Universalism, too. It has seemed to me that the real importance of Arianism, Socinianism, and other forms of unitarian Christology in the early modern period was not their arguments against Chalcedonian doctrines of Christ's dual nature and the Trinity, rather that they introduced and developed liberal forms of interpreting scripture and tradition: They insisted on experiential and/or rational evidence beyond appeals to orthodox authority. It's the nascent liberalism of the anti-Trinitarians, not their particular doctrinal conclusions, that should matter to us. And as contemporary interpretations of the Trinity have emerged in the broader Christian world — interpretations that UUs tend to ignore entirely — our old-fashioned critiques can become anachronistic and even atavistic.

You might say that unitarianism has become dogmatic for us — the Trinity being something that a "good" UU simply cannot believe in because we are, by default, anti-Trinitarians. I'd suggest instead that UUs celebrate theological liberalism as a method rather than as a set of theological conclusions.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 29 July 2007 at 8:20 AM

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July 29, 2007 09:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

Of course, there may be great arguments for modern versions of a unitarian doctrine of God; it's just that very few UUs are making these arguments — and that's what makes our casual support for non-Trinitarian views and our casual dismissal of all Trinitarian views suspect. They've just become default settings, not especially profound commitments.


July 29, 2007 09:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yes and no.

It's true that at the turn of the 19th what defined both Unitarians and liberal Congregationalists was their theological openness and rejection of orthodox dogmas. Each (in different ways) emphasized the probative value of reason in doctrinal matters and the benevolent nature of God. For both, high Christology per se was less significant than the benevolence of God's nature that Jesus taught, so both were willing to accept low Christology as equally valid with orthodox Trinitarianism.

It was originally the liberals' tolerance of low Christology rather than their insistence upon it that led their orthodox Calvinist critics to accuse them of "Unitarianism". However, over the course of the next two centuries, what began as tolerance did tend to solidify into a new, contrary, dogmatism. Tolerance of a view of Jesus' nature as human eventually solidified into a dogmatic rejection of the view that his nature could have been in any way divine. Among many of our congregations, the dogmatic rejection of his divinity then progressively expanded into a dogmatic rejection of his Christly role as mediator and intercessor, as an ideal human archetype, and ultimately even as a religious figure deserving of any unique honor or reverence.

As Emerson observed, dogma is the enemy of inspiration. I think you are right to call for a re-emphasis of our theological tolerance and a shattering of our encrusted dogmatism. However, there are those (I am among them) for whom a true divine incarnation seems impossible because the human condition is too constrained to be able to contain the full essence of divinity, and for whom Christianity makes sense but only when Christ is seen as a human rather than divine figure: a monumental spiritual leader who reliably points us to God but is not humself God. Thus, our historic theology remains powerful rather than anachronistic, at least to some of us. And it might seem more powerful to many more of us than it does now if we had the courage to preach and practice it with the same sincerity and vigor that we once did. That it does not may not be attributable so much to its anachronism as to our present failure of imagination and will.

Jeff W.:

July 29, 2007 09:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

Such dismissal is also suspect because one half of our denomination--the Universalists--did not reject the Trinity. I know you know this but just for the record. . .

I think the term you mean is "obsolete," not "anachronistic." To be anachronistic is to have something contemporary or relatively recent read back onto something in an earlier time period when it did not exist or did not pertain. Anti-Trinitarianism was very much a part of the early growth of Unitarianism in North America (as was liberal scriptural exegesis). That it has waned in importance makes it perhaps obsolete at present, but, from a historian's perspective, it is not anachronistic.

Anti-Trinitarianism was dogmatic (in the soft sense) for the fully-developed Unitarianism that emerged in North America. Not that you had to pledge your allegiance to the Unity, but rather it was part of the common doctrinal code that defined who the community was (while, nonetheless, not explicitly excluding those who believed otherwise yet wished to attend Unitarian functions).

I'm just trying to refine the argument here, because otherwise I think you're on the trail of something. Historical anti-Trinitarian arguments in the mouths of contemporary Unitarian-Universalists do sound a bit funny, don't they? Trinitarian Christianity has moved on to new ideas and explanations in many quarters, but, having taken ourselves out of that fight some time back, many of us seem to be fighting a phantom foe when we parrot the arguments and concerns of Unitarian-Trinitarian battles of yesteryear. How ironic that the progressive party, by virtue of its success, has fallen into obsolete conservatism, while the relatively traditionalist party has evolved with modern interpretations that go beyond earlier understandings!


July 29, 2007 09:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

Oops. At the top of my previous post I meant to say, "at the turn of the 19th what defined both Universalists and liberal Congregationalists was their theological openness and rejection of orthodox dogmas...."

Ben Stewart:

July 29, 2007 10:11 AM | Permalink for this comment

I've noted a growth in the ranks of our denomination of religious professionals who want to insert "Christian" into their descriptions. I have thought that this was more a marketing strategy that reflected a "Let's all grow the denomination." mindset. But perhaps you are right and it is a love of all things magical. If we cannot change wine into blood we may do well to settle for pulling rabbits out of our hats. ben

Pastor P:

July 29, 2007 10:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

When I first encountered Unitarian Universalism, and for several years after, the primary way "Unitarianism" was explained was in contrast to "Trinitarianism" which was simplistically equated to belief in the divinity of Christ which was equated to Christianity as a whole. Therefore, if one was a Unitarian, they must also be non-Christian. I think this way of explaining and understanding our faith, an easy assumption just from the word Unitarian, is widespread among folks who don't consider it all that important to read our history or delve into what seem like arcane theological treatises. But the result can be errors of the same sort that Jacoby makes: reading into our forbearers' lives our own theological leanings, preferences, or simple justifications for contemporary positions we'd like to claim have some historical precedent.

I worry sometimes that the lack of standards and discipline in religious and spiritual study - academically or in church - will render our religious heritage completely moot as a resource as we subject it only to our own projections and wishful thinking. I think this is a cultural problem as speaking is privileged over listening, and putting out opinions is preferred to actually having something worth saying. I hope that liberal religion can reclaim the need to sit prayerfully and to encourage critical discourse, not as a way to gain personal power and righteousness, but as a discipline to discern truth as it is made known to us. And to go ever more deeply into the practice to know more deeply the truths that reveal themselves in scripture, in prayer, and in community.


July 29, 2007 10:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

Ben, your concern over unreliable magical thinking seems unnecessary to me. Our historic tradition is Protestant, and within Protestantism we historically comprised the most rational, skeptical branch of the rational limb of the family tree. More specifically, no Protestant, no matter how orthodox and unquestioning, ever has believed in transubstantiation, and in the Reformed tradition from which we spring, the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper have always been considered merely a ceremonial "remembrance". I don't think we're in much danger of any mass outbreak of reckless gullibility.

An increase in the number of UU ministers who consider themselves "Christian" has nothing to do with either marketing or magic, but rather I think results from a renewed quest for theological depth in response to the extreme shallowness of UU affirmations and praxis in recent decades. It does, however, present such ministers with the challenge of whether they should try to tread the same path as our denominational predecessors, tread the same path as other liberal Christians outside our own denomination whose concerns have evolved away from those that prevailed when we last contributed to the Christian dialogue, pursue some combination of the two, or blaze a new trail entirely.


July 29, 2007 11:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

Pastor P, you said:

I worry sometimes that the lack of standards and discipline in religious and spiritual study - academically or in church - will render our religious heritage completely moot as a resource as we subject it only to our own projections and wishful thinking.

I agree, but where you say "will render" I'm afraid it would be more accurate to say "has rendered". If it were not already nearly a fait accompli, we would presumably not be spending a fine Sunday morning debating whether our traditional Unitarian Christology is anachronistic, obsolete, or only neglected; or whether the self-identification of some UU clergy as "Christian" is a full-blown descent into delusional magical thinking or only a disingenuous marketing gimmick.

Lizard Eater:

July 29, 2007 03:33 PM | Permalink for this comment


Thanks for this, Philo. Your whole "PS" remark is going into my UU101 Curriculum.


July 29, 2007 03:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

Isaac Newton was bonkers, and not in a nice way. Just look at his attitudes towards sex and torture. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to claim him as one of their own.

Jacoby is quite wrong in claiming that modern physics departments discriminate on the basis of job applicants' religious views. I have witnessed the hiring process at several top US physics departments and have never seen such a thing. It just doesn't come up.

Finally, although most top physicists are atheists, physicists are not nearly as hostile towards theories of intelligent design as Jacoby imagines. For example, the theory of intelligent design presented in the popular film "2001: A Space Odyssey" doesn't bother physicists at all. They tend to think of it as an amusing possibility.


July 29, 2007 06:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Fausto, I didn't mean to suggest that people who believe Jesus was merely human shouldn't be welcome in the contemporary UUism. I think they should feel warmly welcome, and that it's a mistake not to explore our historic theology as Unitarians and Universalists. (Truly unitarian UUs who also identify as followers of Jesus often do not feel welcome, of course, which only heightens the irony of our default anti-Trinitarianism.)

Jeff W., thanks for the clarification. Yes, I meant "obsolete" rather than "anachronistic."

Ben Stewart, you are clearly not responding to anything I have written. Take some smelling salts and try again.

Pastor P — and Fausto again! — thanks for your comments. I came back from hearing Mrs Philocrites preach this morning to discover all this conversation in my absence. Bless you!

Ben Stewart:

July 29, 2007 10:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philo,that was a bit snarky on both our parts. Here is what I was responding to "You might say that unitarianism has become dogmatic for us — the Trinity being something that a "good" UU simply cannot believe in because we are, by default, anti-Trinitarians." Jesus' last name was not Christ. The use of Christ by Unitarians implies recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. No one I know refers to themselves as Jesusorians. So I take the point being made is that those using the term Christian Unitarian are speaking from a belief mode. Is your point in this quotation that one can accept Jesus as a part of a holy trinity and remain a unitarian? If so, what would be the point in being a member of the denomination. Surely there are other liberal Protestant religions that would not be filled with so many humanist, atheist, and agnostics, who on one level or another find no comfort in Christianity? ben

Kim Hampton:

July 30, 2007 12:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

Just to let you know....there are quite a few of us who do not equate Son of God with God the Son, which is what the old traditional definition of Trinitarian was. One can be a Unitarian Christian and believe that Jesus was the Messiah (maybe I haven't read enough Channing to come across something different, but isn't this what he believed?)

And don't forget.....while the classic Universalist professions of faith were Trinitarian, it was not required to subscribe to all of them in order to be considered a Universalist.

Great posting Philo.


July 30, 2007 04:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

I agree with your assessment that historical Unitarianism is more about a radical, rational reevaluation of Christian doctrine rather than a dogmatic assertion of the Unity of God. That is my point in defending Servetus as the first Unitarian: not because he affirmed the unity of God, but because he made a radical criticism of the doctrines of the Church according to his free and responsible search for truth, which led him, among other things, to deny the Trinity (but not Christ's divinity).

OTOH it does not mean that old arguments against the Trinity or other affirmations made by our forebears should be dismissed now for being "anachronistic" or "obsolete". They are the very basis upon which we can work today. We need to affirm our past, not deny it or ignore it. We need to follow that famous sentence that is attributed to Newton himself, even when he was not the first who said it: "We can see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants."


July 30, 2007 07:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

Ben, Kim's right. Out own Unitarian tradition is a Christian tradition, but it is a variant of Christianity in which the Christ, the Messiah, is understood primarily as a human figure rather than a divine one.

That you apparently are not aware of this distinction is evidence of Pastor P's concern that we have so neglected the keeping and nurture of our own traditions that many of us are no longer able to articulate or recognize them.

That, in turn, is I think what prompts Philo to ask whether the few vestiges that we do cling to have any remaining vitality in their dessicated context. Philo argues for casting aside the dry husks of a doctrinal system that we have largely abandoned and embracing a reinvigorated attitude of doctrinal tolerance. Kim, Pastor P and I are not necessarily against tolerance, but we are arguing that we shouldn't necessarily dismiss the validity of doctrines we haven't really made the effort to understand -- especially when they constitute a major part of our own religious identity and heritage.

And all that's only on the Unitarian side of our house. As to your apparent view that those who recognize a divine Christ ought to feel more at home in a different denomination, one that does not embrace so many non-Christians, it seems to me that you are completely ignoring the Universalist side of our heritage. The Universalist Church was an evangelical, revivalist Christian movement that preached salvation through Christ just like the rest of the tent-meeting preachers and circuit riders. However, where they differed from the rest was in preaching that God's love as made manifest in Christ's atonement was so strong and so all-encompassing that no one could be excluded from the feast -- even the separation of nonbelievers and unrepentant sinners was overcome by the Cross. That's why variations in belief were welcome among Universalists -- because it wasn't your belief that saved you, anyway, it was God's pervasive, overwhelming love. Whether your Christology was unitarian or trinitarian, it didn't matter to Universalists; they supported both.

So, where else can trinitarian Universalists express their faith by worshipping together with unitarians and humanists and Buddhists and earth-centered spiritualists? Good question, but a better one might be, why should they have to leave home to do so?


July 30, 2007 08:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume and Fausto, I'm not dismissing the christology of the early Unitarians; I'm only saying that these doctrines have become default settings or dogmas without much current intellectual engagement by UUs. Even more, the theological climate in which early Unitarian christology emerged has changed significantly, and the old arguments (though not perhaps the conclusions) may not apply anymore. Then again, they may. I'd be extremely interested in finding UUs who attempt to make a fresh restatement of unitarian christology.

Ben, now that we're done been snarky, I'll make a larger point that may help you see what my real concern is. When I suggest that UUs have become reflexively or dogmatically "unitarian," what I'm pointing to is that the more important feature of our tradition — our embrace of liberal, critical, and experiential approaches to theology — is betrayed by this uncritical embrace of anti-Trinitarianism. I'm saying that we're not really doing our own theology anymore.

Many UUs say that "all are welcome" or that we "honor diversity," even though of course there are many ideas that UUs don't welcome at all. UUs see all sorts of intellectual or doctrinal borders to Unitarian Universalism, many of which rely on unreflective distinctions between the "irrational" doctrines of Christians and the "rational" doctrines of Unitarians. I'm saying that if we're going to have doctrinal borders, we should know what we're talking about. If we're going to welcome every belief under the sun, good luck! But if we're going to honor our liberal tradition of thinking critically about religious ideas, we should do that — without automatically maintaining borders formed in quite different historical and intellectual contexts.


July 30, 2007 10:57 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not dismissing the christology of the early Unitarians;


I'm only saying that these doctrines have become default settings or dogmas without much current intellectual engagement by UUs.

And I'm seeing your ante and raising. I'm not only agreeing that seeing Christ as a human rather than divine archetype (which the liberal Congregationalists of 200 years ago were willing to allow, but hardly considered essential before their more orthodox colleagues began to accuse them of "Unitarianism") has since hardened into a dogma, but I'm also saying that in many corners of UU-dom, that dogma has further metastasized into an outright banishment of Jesus as any sort of meaningful religious figure. This hard denial, I think you'd agree, is directly contradictory to the liberal theological premise that many varieties of spiritual understanding can and should be encouraged to co-exist as complementary.

I agree with you that part of the remedy is to reaffirm the hostility of our liberal faith community toward all forms of dogmatic rigidity, including this one; and I think you would agree with Kim, Pastor P and me that one salutary result of that reaffirmation might be to rediscover and reassert some of own traditional theologies that have come to be discouraged and neglected due to subsequent hard dogmatic denials.

Even more, the theological climate in which early Unitarian christology emerged has changed significantly, and the old arguments (though not perhaps the conclusions) may not apply anymore.

Perhaps so, but unless we can break the taboo of dogmatic banishment, we'll never know, will we?

Then again, they may. I'd be extremely interested in finding UUs who attempt to make a fresh restatement of unitarian christology.

Yes, but who will bell the cat?

Such an initiative doesn't seem likely to come out of 25 Beacon any time soon. I expect it might arise organically out of the congregations, if the younger generation of "Unitarian Christian" clergy that Ben notes grows and begins to find its voice in our pulpits. Most of the (few) "UC" clergy that I've seen, however, at the moment seem to be hiding much of their light under bushels to avoid alienating existing members of their congregations.

Unless and until that self-censorship lifts, I don't anticipate much in the way of innovative expression or renewed influence. Of course, it would be a pleasant surprise to be proven wrong.

Ben Stewart:

July 30, 2007 11:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

What are we talking about? I've been chair of our congregations Religious Services committee for a couple of years. I get two general complaints about services. Number one: Not enough spirituality. Number two: You guessed it already, didn't you? Not enough challenge intellectually, or as one lady put it, "Too much hoo-hoo." A random survey of about a third of our membership revealed a great majority of humanist, atheist, and agnostics. We have a very, very active Social Concerns element to our ministry. That element and the element whose primary responsibilities concern the day to day processes of the church are both lead by retirees. Philo, being a part of Beacon Street you might know better than me, but I bet most liberals or UUs of sixty plus,active in church work associate themselves with the Humanist rather than the Christian roots of the denomination. I realize I am blundering on badly to make a point, but bear with me. What we are talking about is not just personal journeys in seeking understanding but challenge to long standing associations. What is a church but the opportunity to meet in association with others who share your passions? My point is that what we are talking about effects few in my church directly, but all of them in some halo effect and that the idea of a return to a personalized deity is an uncomfortable threat.ben


July 30, 2007 12:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Fausto, amen and amen. As for where such an "initiative" would come from: That's the problem, obviously. It isn't the sort of thing that could or should come from "25"; no staff group has this as an area of responsibility. (Unless my friend Sarah sees this as part of her role in the Lifespan Faith Development staff group.) But if clergy — or talented and committed laypeople — found ways to teach theology at a local level, we might see some progress. And this topic takes me back to one of the things I hope new technologies will allow, which is the appearance of new journals or forums dedicated to theology. It may turn out, however, that theology has no future in the UUA and that we'll simply drift into a kind of intellectual backwater, dependent on the tides of pop culture religion.

Ben, I think you're asking a very important question. The "lived theology" of a UU congregation is exactly whatever it is that the congregation talks about. There are many inputs to a local conversation: ministers and other staff and the things they're reading and the people they're talking to at a professional level; lay leaders and the things they're reading and the people they're talking to about church and about topics that matter to them personally; and the concerns and commitments that members talk about and see reflected in the congregation's programming.

One of the reasons this blog exists is to encourage my friends in the UU ministry, the seminaries, and the academic community to find new ways to talk about theology as a discipline. As far as I'm concerned, "theology" isn't a way to bring "God talk" back into UU congregations; it's a way to bring intellectual seriousness back into Unitarian Universalism. I think Humanists have a stake in having this conversation, not in trying to head it off. The success of Bill Murry's new book, for example, is a good sign — as is the number of people who turned out this year at GA for his presentation and for workshops led by UU theologian Paul Rasor and for the workshop with Denny Davidoff and Gini Courter about theology for laypeople. People want more conversation like this.


July 30, 2007 12:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

What are we talking about? ...I bet most liberals or UUs of sixty plus,active in church work associate themselves with the Humanist rather than the Christian roots of the denomination.

I think one of the things we're talking about is the tendency for one generation's good news to become the next generation's stale air. It happened to the Unitarian Christians in a lot of our congregations when their paradigm was crowded out by that of Humanism. (Which, being only about 70 years old, would probably be more accurately described as an "offshoot" or "scion" than a "root".)

My own grandfather was a Humanist lion who studied under John Dewey and then taught Corliss Lamont in the days when Humanism was new and captivating, but is another paradigm shift in progress today? Does Humanism still capture the imaginations of new under-30 converts, or command and retain the allegience of our birthright under-30 generation, with the same irresistable magnetism that our over-60 generation felt? I don't see much evidence of that, but if not, what will?

Ben Stewart:

July 30, 2007 01:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

The Portland GA is a tremendous influence in our church. We are in the midst of establishing a number of workshops and projects which relate to specific programs from the GA. We are using the DVD from Murry and from Korten to kick-off two of the long range projects and the Pentagon Papers revisited is likely to be a part of a short term workshop on UU life. For those who have been interested in the exploration of Spirituality, we are trying to get leadership for the Wellspring program, that is a minimum 12 month commitment for the leader, takes a strong spirit to volunteer for that position. And we are not about to let talk about Humanism become stale air. The very public debate over Atheism has encouraged formation of a UUHumanism study group. ben


July 31, 2007 04:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

I did not mean that you personally dismiss that legacy, I meant that we, as a religious collective, should not ignore it or downplay it as "white dead men stuff" as sometimes I've seen it described.

Our Unitarian tradition has never had a clear christology, so it is hard to start one now. We have wandered from a variety of modalism (Servetus) to non-adorantism (Dávid), and back to adorantism to a human-becoming-divine being (Socinus), varieties of Arianism, then Jesus as divine messenger and miracle-worker, to Jesus the moral prophet, the feminist, and the revolutionary rebel. Which one will be next? Jesus the Pagan? (there are already some "Christo-Pagans" around...).

I hope that the upcoming publication of the proceedings of the 2006 ICUU Theological Symposium (one of them by yours truly) will help to clarify the current state of U+U theology (or perhaps make it even more confusing ;-)).


July 31, 2007 07:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume, when you say,

Our Unitarian tradition has never had a clear christology,

it depends how you define "our" tradition. I think there have been two clear Christologies within the AUA/UUA. The earlier one is a form of adoptionism, in which Jesus was born human of natural parents, but later elevated by God to a (subordinate) divine status. The later one is an entirely human Christology, in which Jesus is seen as a prophetic religious and social reformer and moral exemplar, similar (but superior) to Moses, Elijah or Muhammad.

I don't know as much about them, but I wouldn't be surprised if, once the turmoil of the Reformation had settled down, this were also true of the English and Hungarian Unitarians -- even though they are distinct traditions, unrelated to each other or the one in North America (except to the extent of any similarities in their Christology).


July 31, 2007 10:41 AM | Permalink for this comment

I disagree that the English and Hungarian traditions are unrelated. English Unitarianism would hardly be started without the influence of the Racovian Catechism and the works from Polish Socinians exiled in Holland. And Socinus and the Polish Socinians were very influential in the beginnings of Transylvanian Unitarianism, first through Socinus himself (remember that Dávid was actually defeated in his struggle on non-adorantism) and then through the group of exiles who found refuge in those lands in the 17th century. Our worlwide religious tradition is a long and unlikely golden thread, that keeps re-emerging every time that our enemies thought that we had been finally defeated.


July 31, 2007 01:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

We're quibbling over minor semantics, but despite my choice of blogonym I don't think Socinus' influence on the Hungarian, Polish, English and American Unitarian churches quite rises to the level of establishing a common "tradition" among them. It never forged them into a single religious community the way Paul's influence on the churches in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus did, for example. The Racovian catechism may have been read, but was never confessed, outside Poland.

And I do think that two clear Christologies did successively prevail in the American churches.

I'm splitting hairs, though. I agree with you that it would be nearly impossible for the UUA to embrace a single clear Christology today -- if not because it has never had one before, then because both our present commitment to theological diversity, and the strenuous aversion to all things Jesus among certain vocal factions of our membership, would conspire to prevent it.


July 31, 2007 03:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

Sorry to be late in joining this interesting thread. ‘Tis a topic well worth the effort and one which is bound to have increasing relevance as both a wave of “Christian” ministers escape seminary and settle into churches (in the same way an earlier wave of Humanists dramatically changed the landscape) and because a growing and genuine yearning for informed spirituality in the pews has now spread from flirting with Eastern religion and paganism to a re-consideration of Christianity. Twenty or thirty years ago among most historically Unitarian churches, this would have been impossible. As a history geek, however, I have to take semi-exception to Jeff W.’s posting early in the thread: “Such dismissal is also suspect because one half of our denomination--the Universalists--did not reject the Trinity. I know you know this but just for the record. . .”
Although it is true that the earliest Universalists—John Murray, Ellihu Winchester, Caleb Rich and the extended clan of frontier preachers—were Trinitarian, Hosea Ballou was explicitly unitarian. Within a generation his view prevailed throughout the denomination. Even the Restorationists who broke with Ballou argued over future punishment, not over the number of the godhead. Although never a doctrinal point—or even a central theological concept—unitarianim was almost universal in the denomination from the mid-19th Century on. Twentieth Century Universalists in the Skinner tradition de-emphasized Christ even more in their search for a universalism that both embraces and transcends world religious traditions. Trinitarian universalism, of course, can still be found, but it is generally and expression or tendency within other denominations and not part of the historical Universalism that is now part of the Unitarian Universalist heritage.

Jeff W.:

July 31, 2007 05:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

No quibbles, Patrick. Of course Ballou worked out a fully-fledged unitarian Universalism, and unitarianism was a common, but not exclusive, attitude in later Universalism. But Trinitarianism was never rejected by the Universalists--it just wasn't professed much after a certain point in time. My point was only that anti-Trinitarianism as a raison d'etre for denominational existence is a legacy of only half our tradition.


July 31, 2007 05:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

Speaking as a liberal theologian, I'd have to say that experiential and/or rational evidence is exactly what Christian faith is all about. Yeshua himself pointed to evidence and reason to authenticate his actions and teachings. He also said of the orthodox authorities that they would not enter the kingdom of Yahweh. I could open up scripture and point to virtually any character to find the same method being practiced again and again, no matter how far back I go. Moses, for instance, when he was being sent to Pharaoh, was provided by YHWH with evidence and reason to use against Pharoah and for the benefit of his people to show that YHWH was there and YHWH was acting in a way that could be seen, felt, heard, and rationally accepted or rejected.

And, by golly, YHWH himself even uses this "liberal" methodology! He says, for instance, that if a prophet speaks and such a thing does not come to pass, then such a rational observance of historical evidence is enough to validate or invalidate a proposed divine word of God himself.

I'd say that being in line with all the scriptural players including Yeshua and YHWH himself puts us liberals in pretty good company!

Ben Stewart:

July 31, 2007 07:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

I am beging to think that I am surrounded by theologians. But before I make an escape I want you to think, or in your language reflect upon, the layity and our needs. The clergy's need to consider a Christology may not meet the needs of a given congregation. The denomination, Unitarian Universalist, is often referred to by friend and foe as a Transitional Church. A stoping off place where the trouble can find encouragement and sustenance and then continue. I think that is a good thing. We love those who stay and share, but those who only pass through we also love. It may be fun for you or me to debate who is the cooler guy, Christ or Jesus and every congregation enjoys the mapping of a theological family tree now and then, but I do not believe that to be the essence of UU life. This year our congregation, like many others, will rexamine the seven principles. What I will be looking for is the presence of the heresy of relativism. Which, when I think about it, is perhaps one of the criticisms of the proffesional clergy. Is there some desire for the certainity of dogma, for the divine pronouncement, at home in the seminarian heart this decade? How well does that piece of the puzzle fit in the same niche held by the congregation? How well it fits is not nearly as how it is expressed and understood. ben

Ron Robinson:

August 1, 2007 11:41 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks too for the good conversation. I would be remiss if I didn't plug the great deal we have now for any who don't own the 1977 published book "Unitarian Christology in American Unitarianism" by Prescott Wintersteen. For $5 to the UUCF it can be yours. Just email me at

Also, one of these days I will post Carl Scovel's 1973 essay "The Truth in The Trinity" published in the UU Christian Journal. But until then I will post some about it from my M.Div thesis on UU Christian ecclesiology since 1945 (Carl's position is not necessarily the mainstream one in UU Christianity, of course, then or now, but his 1973 piece is I think in the mainstream now of the revisioned more metaphorical Trinity among liberal/liberationist Christians in general, akin to the kind of re-thinking Philocrites originally alluded to):

Carl's position grows out of the understanding that as he puts it "Christian faith is the response to Jesus" as opposed to trying to somehow get back to the "religion of Jesus." As such the Trinity is a part of that response, to how his followers answered the question "How is God with us?" Particularly Carl said that the image of the trinity reveals the truth that when "God is too close or too removed, humans take his place." This has little to do with subsequent creedal affirmations and understandings in Christian tradition, which of course are always being challenged and affirmed and altered within the Tradition itself. It also puts the emphasis on faith as a work of the community since at the heart of Christian faith is a community responding to Jesus.
Some of us UUs these days are just finding the Trinity a helpful metaphor and a window to God, however smudged.

And speaking theologically, and of Jesus as the Messiah, check out my recent blog activity on the new perspective on Paul, perhaps one of the oldest of the "non-Trinitarians" among the Jesus followers but whose monotheistic concepts of God, Christ, and Spirit became fused by later creedalists. (And need I add the old caveat too that it isn't that the creeds themselves in themselves aren't the problem, but how people responded to them with the "ism" that tries unsuccessfully to kill even them.)


August 1, 2007 12:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ron, I'll take one of those Wintersteens. I'll e-mail you off-line.

I've slogged about halfway through it in the past. He was a pretty turgid writer. You get bogged down.

Ironically, the present occupant of his pulpit is the same Pastor P who posted some of her own thoughts earlier in this thread. It really is an interdependent web.

(She's much less turgid.)


August 1, 2007 02:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Wow. I have to say this thread has some excellent MDivving going on. As an MDiv who hasn't read any of the books hinted at in this thread---I was Methodist back then---this gives me a good idea of the depth out there waiting for me.

It seems that every few weeks there is a call in the UU blogosphere for a new era of serious theologizing. I don't know what everyone is waiting for. It's not going to happen with great sermons---clergy are too wary of doing that, as mentioned up thread. It's not going to happen in journals, because they're dying out and no one reads them anyway. And who reads pamphlets these days?

Either people are going to start writing ambitious books of systematic theology or people in the blogosphere---perhaps people in this thread---are going to start doing it.

Isn't this where the action should take place that used to happen in pamphlets and journals? Who else do you think will do it for us?


August 4, 2007 11:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

Just a brief response to Chutney's question: "Isn't this where the action should take place that used to happen in pamphlets and journals?":

Blogs seem very much kin to pamphlets and journals, just moving at a much faster pace than the print publication process would allow. What about moving beyond blogs? A wiki could allow both collaboration and comments and provide a central place for collecting such theological work, instead of having to search for it all over the blogosphere. What other approaches could provide a platform for "doing theology" in a systematic fashion?


August 4, 2007 07:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was thinking something more like Wikis are better for reference.


August 15, 2007 04:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ben writes: "I am beging to think that I am surrounded by theologians." I am not much of a theologian, but I'm glad to see one more forum for those of us who are.

When I explain UUism to those who haven't heard of it before, I explain it as a church that grew from two heresies: that Jesus matters more as a teacher about love and justice than as a personal savior; and that redemption is possible for everyone. That might be confusing for anyone who had never heard of Christianity, of course, but I'll cross that bridge when I get to it. Anyways, my explanation to some extent misrepresents us, since few UUs think much about Jesus as a teacher, and as Fausto points out, many UUs practice an "outright banishment of Jesus". But it does give a lot of people a useful first approximation of understanding my religion and my church.

I affirm the divinity of Jesus, insofar as I affirm the divine in all humans who choose love and justice. Whether Jesus as Lord is essential for salvation, remains a key issue in American religion generally, and I do not expect to meet a 21st-century Unitarian, Universalis or UU who answers "yes" to that question. If I do, I'll want to ask further questions!

I have met a modern Universalist who identifies as Trinitiarian - and who sees their church's membership in the UUA as an alliance with heterodox others, just as the UUA's co-sponsorship of OWL does not commit the UUA to the beliefs of the UCC. However, they did not demand that I bend my knee to Jesus as Lord. If they had, I would question whether they belonged at GA.

I see a similar distinction in Buddhism, between schools that emphasize Buddha as Savior, and schools which emphasize the dharma and the middle way, available to anyone, whether or not they even know it by the name "Buddhism". Certainly I bring my lense to my understanding of Buddhism, and the American Buddhists I know are influenced by the Christianity around them. Yet it still seems an important distinction.

Thanks, Philocrites, for this forum!

Ron Robinson:

August 16, 2007 02:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

The recent Summer 2007 issue of The Herald, the journal of the UK Unitarian Christian Association has a good article in it on the Trinity by the editor, The Rev. Andrew Brown. I excerpt from it today at Planting God Communities,

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