Jump to content

Do Uu's Know The Way To Progressive Christianity?


tinythinker
 Share

Recommended Posts

[please note: I am not trying to start a debate; I felt that since some may wish to debate or seriously discuss these issues this post belonged on the debate and dialogue forum; this is intended as a conversation starter for people in general, not as a tit-for-tat pitting me against all-comers. ;o) thanks.]

 

 

 

In the middle of the last century the Unitarians and the Universalists in the United States joined together to form the Unitarian-Universalist Association. Based on their understanding of the teachings and examples of Jesus, they wanted a non-creedal, non-exclusivist vision of religion in which people of all faiths or no faith could come together to serve a Higher purpose and share a common fellowship. So today UUs come in all flavors, so to speak. Because their set-up is congregational rather than denominational, each church can be very distinct. In some UU congregations you might think you were in a progressive Christian church, while in others you might think you were in a liberal social justice picnic and book club. In some, you might hear frequent references to the Source, the Divine, or God, and in others people might cringe or make a sour face at the mere mention the G-word. In some, the life and example of Jesus is celebrated as a model for how to be fully human and recognize the Divine in all things, whereas in others (as some have joked) the only time you hear anyone mention Jesus in their church is if someone trips on the stairs on the way out. Indeed it is hard to praise or criticize UUism without someone pointing out that the comment doesn't hold true for their congregation, making even thoughtful critiques difficult.

 

While they won't call them creeds, the UUs do have their principles:

 

There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:

 

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Unitarian Universalism (UU) draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
  • These principles and sources of faith are the backbone of our religious community.

 

Perhaps then it is fair to say that in their exuberance for inclusivity based on the inspiration from Christ's UUism dismantled their Christian identity any overt primary references to the Christian tradition. Given the negative association some have with the political and social bedfellows Christianity has kept at various times in its history, this could be seen as a plus. Come on in Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, Buddhists, Animists, Agnostics, Atheists, etc. There is no big scary judgmental GOD here nor the guilt trip often associated with stories and sermons concerning the remembrance of Jesus. For those healing from negative experiences with organized religion this may also be perceived as a boon.

 

On the other hand, this transition has created problems as well, as summarized in the following joke:

 

What do you get when you cross a Jehova's witness with a Unitarian?

 

Someone who knocks on your door for no reason.

 

Nor is this just a view of people outside UUism who don't appreciate what the organization has to offer. Here is one recent complaint from a UU minister about the effects of certain attitudes/agendas expressed within the UUA. Nor am I a UU-basher. I have attended a few services at a couple of locations and I have a great hope for the success of such an organization (you can read more about my hesitation and uncertainty over UUism here).

 

Another way to put it is this: What is religion and spirituality actually about? What are the essential components? Does being progressive and non-exclusive in terms of salvation/enlightenment/etc mean becoming non-distinct in terms of tradition? That is, is there a difference between

 

-being a progressive Christian who is a part of the interfaith/interspiritual movement who sees value and occasionally draws on other traditions but who still functions within the broader context of the Christian tradition, and,

 

-someone who begins firmly rooted in a tradition such as Christianity and who has grown to organically incorporate elements from other traditions into a primary and consistent practice as part of a long and serious journey of growth, and,

 

-someone who identifies with no particular religious label, talks a lot about the value of religious diversity, and switches back and forth between a number of various practices?

 

And which of these, if any, do we imagine as being a preferable model for what a progressive Christianity? Should we even have a rough idea of what we think a progressive Christianity should look like? What can we learn from the experiences of the UUA, or even from working with the UUA?

 

This is a relevant concern for TCPC as it addresses the concerns of people such as Brian Wilson, whose article on what he terms the Gap people ("A God for the Gaps") included in the recent TCPC newsletter appears to cover much of the same ground. For example, Wilson writes that:

 

Gap people, benevolent towards the church, confirmed, but non-churchgoers. With young children and busy lives, they feel no pressing need of the church and it is hard to see what the church can offer them. They are genuinely puzzled about what to teach their children in this modern age about the Bible and Jesus, but are not attracted to Sunday School, which offers little beyond a fast track to fundamentalism.

 

But I would argue that though such indifference is in some ways a regrettable phenomenon, it is also an extremely healthy sign of a general rejection of the outdated modes of theology, thought and worship which too many of the churches continue to purvey. It is an essential precursor to renewal, though I suspect neither I, nor my children, will live to see it.

 

In our parish discussion, we shied away from any suggestion that the theology we offer is seriously flawed and that the fundamental "narrative" of the faith now lacks credibility for thinking people. But where thinking people are today, the generality will be the day after tomorrow - and sooner if the clergy fail to educate their people in the new insights born of modern science and biblical scholarship.

There are a host of issues here which could be addressed separately at length. For example, there is more to theology than the simplistic form that often gets parceled out as Christian beliefs, some which is modern, and some which is ancient but which has been de-emphasized for various reasons. As I am sure Wilson is aware, and as he seems to allude to here, if people are not made aware of the fact that the Biblical narratives are more than just a historical and political spin on a literalistic reading of scripture, then they will and do become incredulous toward such narratives. But the study of myth and religious narrative is much richer than that. I suspect that what Wilson refers to here as "narrative" means the exegesis put forward and defended by a particular group rather than the stories themselves, but I don't know that for certain. In any case, the stories are, in my humble opinion, intended for something far greater than a simple literal/historical interpretation, and in that sense, I think we might agree that making people more aware of this is essential to helping people move past the view of belief being reduced to questions like "Do you intellectually assent to the veracity of the literal and historical version of these events 2,000 years ago which are preserved through a limited series of redacted texts written decades after the events they describe?" That is not what the question "Do you believe in Jesus?" means to me.

 

 

Wilson continues:

 

Someone at our meeting asked a deceptively simple but critical question: what are the needs of the people whom the church would like to attract or win back? The moment such an uncomfortable question was asked, an understandable defensiveness crept in and we were regaled with lists of all the different things our church was doing, the different services, the groups and circles, the church schools, which in our parish are primary schools - so no one even mentioned teenagers. Yet it is among teenagers, I suspect, that the church loses its following for ever.

 

Of course the church needs to be seen to be with people where they are, not where they ought to be. But in the end, a plethora of small initiatives among the already committed resembles nothing so much as the activity of a headless chicken, which rushes in every direction but (alas!) has no idea where it is going. That I am sure is the weakness of the current churches. In seeking to be all things to all men, they are in danger of being nothing to anyone.

 

They must decide .....What is the core mission? What is the core narrative? Get that right and the rest will follow.

This sounds to me very much like what I have read and been told about the history and current story of the changes which lead to the formation of the UUA and its present condition. Again, this is not saying that the UUA is bad, got it wrong, needs fixed, or isn't a positive role model to follow. But whatever ones view of it, as well as of other liberal and progressive groups who have attempted or who are attempting to wrestle with these changes, it (and they) can help us see the outcome of various choices and efforts.

 

 

One problem is that Jesus got it wrong too! He thought that the Kingdom of God was at hand. It turned out that it wasn't (at least in the form that a first century Jew would have conceived it) and that has posed a problem to the Christian church ever after. Jesus never formed a church - he sent his disciples out to preach the good news. And then the good news did not happen; the Second Coming, the End of the Age, and the Last Judgement failed to materialise. As for the church, it was really only formed, or at least firmly crystallised, round an agreed faith, in the 4th century under Constantine, who probably cared less about what people believed than that they should all agree to believe the same thing.

 

But at least turning the signs of the coming Kingdom into a reality has given the churches a sense of purpose down the ages, and to some degree that will remain a task for the foreseeable future: helping the blind to see, the lame to walk, seeking liberty for the captives etc. etc. But here too there is a problem. That battle is won. Christian values have, broadly, triumphed and civilised societies in the Christianised West at least all seek (however inadequately) to care for the weak, the oppressed and the underprivileged. With the disgraceful exception of its attitude to women, Christianity can claim credit for that, whatever its other failings. There always will be residual tasks in this area: to fill the gaps in the welfare state and to keep the state and society up to the mark. But, like Britain, the Christian churches have "lost an empire and not yet found a role."

 

 

The second part of the mission (relationship with God) might be expressed in the words of the disciples: "Lord, teach us to pray." Here Jesus came up with a pretty good answer and example. Retreat to silence and inwardness; seek purity of heart (they are the ones that shall see God); obey the two great commandments; the Lord's prayer - a model of simplicity and lack of verbosity; and follow as best you can the model of life set out in his teaching and example. I don't think he ever suggested that "blessed are the churchgoers," though I concede that he was probably a regular at synagogue.

 

But two millennia of theology and church obscurantism have made such relative simplicity of life and worship almost impossible. Modern civilisation has, in addition, so complicated the situation that Jesus' model is probably only possible in a monastery.

And there are those who, in attempting to separate out the historical Jesus from the mythic Jesus that came after (and "mythic" here is not used in the derogatory sense of falsehood or fairy tale), might question the various interpretations of what Jesus meant by the coming of the Reign of God. One view, as Wilson notes, is that God would make Israel the premier kingdom and that every other nation would honor it. This of course was reinterpreted later as an event farther into the distant future. Another view is that God is always present if we are able to perceive this truth with our heart, which then is supposed to give rise to faith, hope, and charity. I am not a Biblical scholar, but this would seem to be the kind of discussion of scripture and rediscovery of/reawakening to the depth of scripture to which Wilson appears to have alluded. Indeed, there are many such ideas within the history of Christianity waiting to be re-emphasized. This is also true of Wilson's reference to the method Jesus gave for prayer, which as many are aware has been resurgent in the Centering Prayer movement (which in fact does not at all require that one be cloistered in a monastery).

 

 

But let's at least get rid of the theological clutter, the mumbo jumbo, the pre-Darwinian ideas. Let's really re-design (not just re-brand) the product - the theology, the narrative, and the language of worship (though this is at best a peripheral issue) - and perhaps the customers will return to the stores.

This is the area where I suspect I am going to be most in disagreement with the article. There seem to be plenty of ancient and modern theological resources which are not tied to a strictly literalist view of scripture in which the requirement is intellectual assent to a series of historical propositions. In fact, this is a growing area of popular non-fiction, with books by Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, and many others examining the historical roots of contemporary orthodoxy. (I also think that Eberle has an interesting volume, Dangerous Words, which gets at such issues.) That is, there is a belief that the limited view of the Christian tradition we are often given in church services is somehow most or all of what exists in the tradition (or at least adequately sums it up). But this narrow view can be very misleading. For example, there are the interfaith books written by practicing Christians who see no serious conflict between their beliefs and cherishing other faith traditions. There is more to the conversation than just the false dichotomy of "traditionalism" (=outdated rubbish) and "modernism" (=new and reliable).

 

To my way of thinking, what makes a religious tradition effective isn't whether you can use a sacred text as a scientific reference or whether a cultural attitude from a previous age referred to in the liturgy is currently unpopular. Such erroneous views can and should be corrected and the appropriate ceremony or prayer amended. A living religious tradition is a record of the attempts of our predecessors to struggle with who we as humans are and the meaning of our lives. They record the failures and miscues as well as the triumphs and insights. Sifting through it may at times be tedious but to simply dismiss it wholesale seems more than a little rash. People have attempted to re-design and re-brand in the past (various schisms, the reformation, the formation of groups such as the LDS), but the important question has already been posed: What is the core mission? What is the core narrative? For those who believe that the core narrative of the Gospels is LOVE (i.e. agape/caritas), and the core mission is to accept and share that LOVE, I agree that the rest does follow. Whether the individual is/was Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, or Unitarian-Universalist, those who got/get that basic premise, who really got/get it, show it. Is it reflected in their celebration of the liturgy, both in the ceremonial form and in the more important arena of the ordinary lived as sacred.

 

While I do concur that the image of religion has taken abuse, there is more to an effective and worthwhile religion than getting "customers" to "buy" what one is "selling". It is the witness of the effectiveness of a tradition, denomination, or congregation to help transform people that is the best advertising. (Again, I refer to the aforementioned complaint over a religious ad campaign above as an example fo where emphasizing marketing over substance can be problematic).

 

In summary, I think many of Wilson's suggestions are, in fact, good ones, but that also they may overlook (or for the sake of brevity simply omit) much of what is in the Christian tradition but which has de-emphasized. I also think many people have been working on other of his suggestions, but that this is often ignored or overlooked by many mainstream denominations. Hence, people continue to be largely unaware of or unable to access anything which might satisfy that spiritual yearning. By examining the history of and current status of other progressive religious movements with goals similar to those of the TCPC as a whole and those expressed by individuals such as Mr. Wilson, perhaps such frustration and antipathy on the part of the "Gap people" and others can be remedied.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I must confess, I didn't read the entire post, but I have some comments nonetheless.

 

I was a member of a U U fellowship a few years ago, and it worked ok for a while. My beliefs, such as they are, are compatible with the U U concept and the seven principles, and I was drawn by the positive stance toward LGBT folk and by a general interest in social justice by some of the members. But I left for a couple of reasons. first, it didn't work for my wife, who is more disposed to conventional Protestantism than I, and second, though I am in agreement with the principles, my way of expressing my views put many members off, as it relied too heavily on language that comes from the Bible. Also, we found a "progressive" Protestant church, though it was an hour from where we lived.

 

But I think it can work for many people, particularly those who are no longer drawn to the language of the Bible. I like the ideas expressed by Brian Wilson as you have described them.

 

What I am conscious of is that I find what people do or at least support (peace and justice) more important than what they believe. Even though I am conscious of being unitarian (small u that is), and that sometimes gets in the way of participation in religious services (the traditional creeds, for example, turn me off), I find something in much of the more traditional Protestant language that resonates with me, and I find it helps me to formulate my ideas and express my convictions.

 

So go figure.

 

But I think your post, though a bit overlong for me, has some very good ideas, and I hope that others respond to it in a supportive way.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I must confess, I didn't read the entire post, but I have some comments nonetheless.

 

I was a member of a U U fellowship a few years ago, and it worked ok for a while. My beliefs, such as they are, are compatible with the U U concept and the seven principles, and I was drawn by the positive stance toward LGBT folk and by a general interest in social justice by some of the members. But I left for a couple of reasons. first, it didn't work for my wife, who is more disposed to conventional Protestantism than I, and second, though I am in agreement with the principles, my way of expressing my views put many members off, as it relied too heavily on language that comes from the Bible. Also, we found a "progressive" Protestant church, though it was an hour from where we lived.

 

But I think it can work for many people, particularly those who are no longer drawn to the language of the Bible. I like the ideas expressed by Brian Wilson as you have described them.

 

What I am conscious of is that I find what people do or at least support (peace and justice) more important than what they believe. Even though I am conscious of being unitarian (small u that is), and that sometimes gets in the way of participation in religious services (the traditional creeds, for example, turn me off), I find something in much of the more traditional Protestant language that resonates with me, and I find it helps me to formulate my ideas and express my convictions.

 

So go figure.

 

But I think your post, though a bit overlong for me, has some very good ideas, and I hope that others respond to it in a supportive way.

 

I agree it is very long. I was intending to finish at the point just before I began to address the article by Mr. Wilson. I had just noticed that article and it seemed very compatible with the larger point I was making, so I included it as well. I might have been better off splitting them into two related posts. In any case your comments are appreciated as I was wondering in the back of my mind wondering how many people here interested in TCPC had any connection or experience with UUism.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I agree it is very long. I was intending to finish at the point just before I began to address the article by Mr. Wilson. I had just noticed that article and it seemed very compatible with the larger point I was making, so I included it as well. I might have been better off splitting them into two related posts. In any case your comments are appreciated as I was wondering in the back of my mind wondering how many people here interested in TCPC had any connection or experience with UUism.

 

Hey tinythinker :) I thought the post was interesting but it took me two separate nights to read it all so I'd kind of forgotten some of it by the time I finished reading. Maybe you could make a bullet-point summary of your major points? Or at least say specifically what you wish to discuss/debate? I'm just afraid a lot of people will be turned off by the length of the post...

 

Thanks! :)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I started reading it and the first part was very interesting but then I got lost in the length. I have a very difficult time reading on a computer screen for any length of time, particularly if it is deep! So yes, breaking it up for me would be extremely helpful. Sure, I can do it myself but I have a ton of work this weekend...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Per requests, I split the post...

 

part one

 

part two

 

I haven't forgotten. I'm in the middle of stuff right now so when I came home from work today I had to do some self-soothing. In this case in came in the form of completing the rooting of a doll head. (And watching the 1972 animated version of Charlotte's Web). Soon I will go back and read the two parts and respond to them. But I want to give the attention, time, thought, and energy it deserves!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

terms of service