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Monday, September 24, 2007

This week at Neglecting theology.

This week, I review Gary Dorrien's three-volume history of American liberal theology, opening with a lament:

Liberal theology is in crisis. Almost no one has heard of it, fewer people can explain it, and even the churches that have historically embraced some version of it are largely alienated from its increasing academic specialization. Meanwhile, divinity schools and theology departments are being marginalized by other scholarly disciplines. (Why ask a theologian when you can ask an economist?) Too academic for the church and too religious for the university, liberal theology also faces renewed challenges from conservative orthodoxy. Critics from Pope Benedict XVI to the American evangelical establishment blast liberal theologians for revising doctrines to accommodate the findings of modern science and history and for embracing changing views of human sexuality and gender.

Nonetheless, according to a masterful new history of liberal theology in America, liberal theology is alive and kicking. What's more, its central insights are as relevant now as they've ever been. But liberal theology cannot influence American society without religious communities that embody it and demonstrate its vitality — or without popular advocates who translate it into forms the general public will embrace. You'd think that's where we [Unitarian Universalists] come in.

One of the many ironies of Unitarian Universalism is that our tradition, liberal theology's first American home, has neglected theology. Uncomfortable promoting our religious ideas in public, we advertise our social justice commitments and our desire for diversity, sometimes failing to notice that many denominations share these commitments. We promote our political alliances, calling Unitarian Universalism part of the "religious left." Too rarely do we make the liberal case for thinking about religion or being part of a religious tradition. We are missing an opportunity.

If you'd like the shorter version of Gary Dorrien's argument or don't feel like reading three long books, there is a condensed but readable excerpt at CrossCurrents: "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity" (55.4: Winter 2005-2006). For earlier blog commentary on liberal theology's crisis and prospects in the UUA, see the 75 comments on "A religion still seeking definition" (12.22.05).

In the news this week, Don Skinner writes about two small groups that are attempting to offer a more inclusive alternative to the Boy Scouts of America. (There is still a UU organization with a formal relationship with the Boy Scouts — UU Scouters — and some UU congregations continue to sponsor Scout troops. For more on the difficult history between the UUA and the BSA in the late 1990s, see here and here.) Also this week: Jane Greer talks to volunteers on a bunch of the appointed and elected committees that make up Unitarian Universalism's "army of volunteers." And Sonja Cohen tracks another week of Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 24 September 2007 at 7:20 AM

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Desmond Ravenstone:

September 24, 2007 05:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

I've observed two shortcomings with how religious liberals "do" theology, especially in comparison with our more conservative neighbors.

First: Liberal theologians seem to emphasize the social, political and cultural (the "macro" side) but fall short of talking about transformation at the individual and interpersonal level (the "micro"). Religious conservatives, on the other hand, have become adept at doing both, and ironically after decades of neglecting the macro for the micro.

Second: As a community, we religious liberals seem to have become infected with what I would call "credentialitis" -- we think that, in order for a theological idea or insight to have validity, it must come from someone who is either ordained, a tenured professor, or has an advanced degree in divinity. Looking at my own library of books on theology and religion, I can count only one book on the liberal/progressive side where the author is not so credentialed, where on the conservative side there are several where the authors are laypeople without formal theological training.

For a movement which extols democracy and equality, we appear to have forgotten about the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. Is it any wonder that conservatives have been successful at labeling us "elitist" and "out of touch"?

Ron Robinson:

September 25, 2007 11:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Great stuff. I did some quick blogging on Dorrien's latest work in the trilogy on my blog in several posts in November 2006 after the book came out and he lectured at the UUCF Revival. Folks might find that of interest too. Blog is at And for this year's Revival go to deadlines fast approaching for discounted rates on registration and at hotels blocked out.

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