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Do UUs have theological common ground?

Two new books try to name the liberal theology that holds Unitarian Universalism together.
By Rosemary Bray McNatt
Winter 2005 11.1.05

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How do diverse Unitarian Universalist views fit together?

At the 2003 General Assembly in Boston, I encountered a non-UU friend who regards herself as a fellow traveler in liberal faith. Having heard conversations among delegates galvanized by the “language of reverence” debate raging among Unitarian Universalists, she wondered aloud whether we were in danger of becoming like so many other religious groups, preoccupied with matters of doctrine. “There’s too much work to do out here for UUs to get into fights about your theology,” she said, with no little scorn.

My friend had stumbled upon a fallacy played out among many of us in our congregations: the false choice between faith and action. True, it’s hard to get worked up about intellectual debates on the nature of God when images of the recent Gulf States disaster are imprinted in our brains. The deep tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, last year’s South Asian tsunami, or even a cursory look at the morning papers may inspire more energy to rage against God than to argue about God. Yet we need not restrict our engagement with theology to polishing our elevator speeches. Most of us first become part of religious communities because we are inspired to use what power we have in the service of life, whether or not we believe in a power greater than ourselves. There is good reason to believe that the clearer we are about what we affirm, the more concrete and effective our actions become.”

Two recent publications attempt to restore the right relationship between our affirmations and our actions by helping to name and to focus on the liberal theology that grounds us. One is useful but leaves important questions unexplored, and the second plumbs the depths of these questions fearlessly.

The Commission on Appraisal, established in 1961 by the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association, is a nine-member body charged to study and report on any aspect of the Association “that would benefit from an independent review.” Elected by the General Assembly, it publishes a report at least every four years. Its newest report, entitled Engaging Our Theological Diversity, was published just before this year’s GA. It represents years of conversations with ordained and lay leaders, individuals, congregations, and affiliate organizations, in an attempt to discern whether there exists enough common ground among us to ensure our future as a viable religion. That is a monumental task, and the commission makes a good beginning in trying to answer the question that has secretly--and not so secretly--preoccupied every questing congregant since the consolidation of Unitarians and Universalists four decades ago: What do we really believe?

The standard answer, of course, is that we believe many things; we are a multi-theological people with room enough for everyone. There’s a great deal of truth to that—and a great deal of discontent about it beneath the surface, which the commission has been probing. One of the great strengths of the Commission on Appraisal’s work is its willingness to ask such questions as: How do we square our notions of inherent worth and dignity with the obvious reach of human evil in our time? What does it mean to affirm another’s religious path? Why isn’t there a uniquely UU spiritual practice? It is hard to think and write by committee, yet the commission has done a more than adequate job of lifting up those issues that haunt us.

One result is, at last, a public and authoritative acknowledgement of a tendency to uncritically embrace a host of non-Christian faiths while the Christianity from which our religious tradition springs is subjected to abuse and scorn:

What is “in,” and also unobjectionable (from the standpoint of many unreconciled former Christians), is anything Eastern or “earthy” in nature. Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American spirituality, and pagan earth-centered religions have been identified as trendy, cool, and acceptable among UUs.

The problem with this is that the fashionability of these “exotic” religions is frequently defined in opposition to Christianity. The exotic religions are . . . given great latitude and not always critically examined, while any use of Christian sources in UU churches is minutely scrutinized. . . . In truth . . . there is as much wisdom and insight in Jewish and Christian sources as there is in other more fashionable traditions. . . . The reality is that all religions have their flaws and have been historically misused.

As wonderful as it is to have the commission give voice to such important questions, it is disappointing to note its vague recommendation that the Association “mobilize a denomination-wide effort . . . to develop and articulate a deeper understanding of who Unitarian Universalists are as a religious people and what shared commitments the UU faith calls us to affirm as well as what challenges we face.” If not the Commission on Appraisal, which denominational body will take up this task?

Authorized as it is by the General Assembly itself, the commission is curiously timid about subjects that most parish ministers know are on the minds of our people. How could commission members, for example, not ask about the range of our people’s responses to the notions of sin and evil? Of course, there will be UUs who will be angry that we even use such traditional words. But there will always be UUs who are angry about something; that should not alter our longstanding commitment to what we typically refer to as “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” What’s more, there are many of us who understand--or want to understand--the presence of evil in the world and who want to grapple with what its consistent presence means to a religious community that places love at the heart of its religious identity. For the commission not to ask such questions is not simply UU theological bias but also the loss of an important opportunity for conversation and insight.


The Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, one of only a handful of academic UU theologians at work today, has been meditating on such questions for some time. His book, Faith Without Certainty, is written as a kind of lover’s quarrel with our tradition, and thus ventures into territory abdicated by the commission. Rasor, who directs the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia, has been shaped not only his experiences as a UU parish minister and seminary teacher, but also by a sojourn among the Religious Society of Friends, when he served as program director of Pendle Hill, the Quaker study and retreat center outside of Philadelphia.

Rasor has created a fertile and provocative book that lays out our way of thinking religiously, differentiates us from more orthodox systems of belief, and highlights themes that recur throughout our history and play themselves out in our congregational life. His book helps explain ourselves to ourselves, teasing out what is both admirable and problematic in our liberal church tradition.

Faith Without Certainty is filled with tools that can help manage the tension inherent in our religious perspective, including this excellent summary of the ideas he explores throughout the book: “The liberal religious tradition . . . invites us to live with ambiguity without giving in to facile compromise; to engage in dialogue without trying to control the conversation; to be open to change without accepting change too casually; . . . to be engaged in the culture without succumbing to the culture.”

It helps to understand that liberal theology is, among other things, a state of mind “based on the premise that human religiousness should be understood and interpreted from the perspective of modern knowledge and modern life experience.” Rasor is quick to remind UU readers of all the things we love about ourselves: our inquiring minds; our reliance on reason; our emphasis on ethical living; our hunger to make religion relevant to daily life. He also reminds us that we don’t have a corner on those impulses; we share them with the liberal wings of other faith traditions.

He grounds us as well in the origins of these impulses. He guides us briskly through a history of great moments in liberal theology, from its beginnings in the work of the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher through ecumenical movements that encompassed liberals in virtually every denomination, to the expansion of liberal religious thought into the country’s academic institutions. Rasor takes note of the loss of confidence in liberal notions of progress that beset the industrialized world in the wake of World War I and the formidable challenge of the neo-orthodoxy movement, which critiqued so stringently the liberal notions of good and evil.

There are many riches in this fine, compact look at the good and not so good news about liberal faith. But it is in his discussions of modernity and its discontents that Rasor shines. “The story of liberal theology is a modern story . . . shaped by modernity’s characteristics,” he writes, identifying the modern period as marked by a shift toward the authority of individuals and a sense of history “as having a direction toward ever increasing progress.” It was during the modern age that people gained confidence in their power to think critically, a confidence bolstered by a concomitant era of scientific discovery.

Modernity, Rasor says, “shaped or reshaped nearly all of our basic institutions and even our thought patterns.” But the advent of the postmodern age changed these intellectual priorities and led to the challenges of the present--a time marked by societal fragmentation, the erosion of distinct categories of knowledge, and a loss of assurance that there is ultimate truth about anything.

Of all the troubling contradictions that Rasor attributes to modernism, racism and classism are the most striking. “During the period celebrated as an enlightened age of reason,” he observes, “a colossal and violent industry built on the dehumanization and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of African people was taking place.” Greatly influenced by the work of Cornel West, who has written of the ways white supremacy is inherent in the structures of modernity, Rasor also identifies modernity’s role in racism’s ascendancy in its “forms of rationality, which favored classification and order . . . applied to human beings.”

Since liberal religion was formed in the crucible of such contradictions, he says, it is only logical that it should fall prey to them. Rasor returns several times to the issue of racism, citing liberal theology’s ambivalence toward issues of racial justice because the methods required to combat it would strike at the heart of liberal self-interest.

He names the obstacles to more significant antiracist work among white liberal religious people, including the historic dirty little secret of superiority based on education, social standing, and race; unwillingness to confront “the issue of indirect accountability--the present residual benefit from previous unjust practices”; and an aversion to understanding antiracism work as spiritual work. On this last point, Rasor argues that racism must be seen “not only as a matter of institutional structures and social power disparities but as a profound evil.”

This is a theological claim: Racism is a profound structural evil embedded deeply within our culture and within ourselves. . . . It is hard for liberals to talk in these terms because we have no real theology of evil and therefore no language or conceptual reference points adequate to the task. But any other approach is inadequate. . . . To approach it as a human construct and nothing more misses its profound power over us.

There is a bracing depth and solidity to Rasor’s affirmative critique of our faith tradition. It is a depth that he applies not only to issues of race and class but also to issues as varied as religious experience, liberation theology, and notions of the self. But there is never a moment in exploring Rasor’s work when the reader doubts that she is in the presence of a faithful companion, someone who has embraced the complexities of liberal religion and rejoices in them. If you want to add some intellectual elegance to your elevator speech, dwell for a while with Faith Without Certainty.

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