Heretics long ago, but now, not so much

Is Unitarian Universalism heretical in any real sense today?

Unitarianism and Universalism were originally defined by "heretical" doctrines: anti-trinitarianism and universal salvation. And during the 19th century especially, the disputes between the heretical Unitarians and the heretical Universalists against the orthodox were potent and real issues.

But one of the consequences of modernism is that almost all of Christianity has made the move that Tillich made in that Christian doctrines are now understood to be not as actual descriptions of physical and historical realities, but as a set of metaphors which are interpreted as describing the existential realities of human life. Almost all Christians understand almost all doctrines as subject to existential and psychological reinterpretation.

The liberal and mainline Protestant churches are quite open about what they are doing. And even among the Barthian proclamationists, there lurks the same remove from actual reality. The differences between the liberal Christian and the fundamentalist Christian is that the Liberal says, "Let us live as we though believe that these doctrines are true" and the Fundementalist, "Let us speak, think and act so convincingly that we believe that these doctrines are true, that we ourselves and others forget that they are not."

Back to Unitarian Universalism: if all doctrine is being existentially and pyschologically reinterpreted in a creative, current process, does our supposed differences with Christian orthodoxy matter anymore?

For example, suppose one were to reinterpret the divinity of Jesus as a metaphor for the divinity of all humanity -- it is a quite modern and liberal statement to say that "all are children of God". Does that "all" include Jesus of Nazareth? Is it our position that all men are the sons of God, except Jesus of Nazareth?

Or, to work the other side of the street: If we reinterpret salvation as coming into a healed relationship with God and others and the self, in this world, in this history, does it make any sense to say that "all are saved?" Obviously, there are many people who will not come into that healing? If we make our own heavens and hells, then it is pretty obvious that it is not true that there is "no hell."

What I am saying is that in the current theological climate, any aspect of doctrine, or any Biblical truth, can be and will be creatively reinterpreted to speak to any aspect of our shared existential realities. Almost every sort of Christian preacher does so routinely. UU's, to the extent that they deal with Christian, Jewish or biblical themes, do not do so much differently. We are not, in practice, very heretical, or more precisely, our old heresies matter less than we think they do.

It would be subject for another post, but I think that much of the Christian world also agrees with us that all world religions are cultural productions of particular cultural circumstances, and that no religion is more true than the others. We differ from others in that we are more willing to modify our liturgy and worship practices to reflect this reality.


  1. I agree with the general direction of your post, but I see the place of liberal religion (and modern-day UU) as a spiritual and practical response to religious dogmatism in general, rather than to specific manifestations of it. I've been addressing this "movement of ongoing Reformation" in posts at my UU message board (, most recently in a response to Jonathan Rowe's blog post about the "anti-theocratic" spirit and theologically unitarian and universalistic sentiments of our nation's founders. I've proposed there that we 21st Century UU's are more in line with the "liberal and Enlightenment spirit" of the founders than were our 19th Century counterparts, and in that context we are also even more of the kind of liberal, rational, critical-thinking "Faith of the Free" that Jefferson had written about.

    I agree with you, though, that many of the old theological arguments are less relevant today, but I would say that some of the perennial conflicts--e.g. those between "revelation and reason" and of the relative validity of natural versus supernatural (superstition, etc.) as sources of truth-- is still very much alive and quite relevant for modern UU's.

  2. bluish seminarian12:52 PM

    Ah, that pesky Nicene Creed...I think you hit on it at the end when you said that UU's are more willing to change our worship practices, rather than keep reciting words that have ceased to reflect our world.

    But I also think that Heaven and Hell are much more real for many people than you give credit to. Especially a Heaven where we all stay ourselves and meet up with lost loved ones and look down on earth from the clouds. And a Hell where murders and child molesters burn forever. I think they are both very real, non-post-modern places for lots of Americans. To say that they don't exist in this way is still not generally considered.

    I think this is a problem ignored by a lot of liberal clergy. The old words get used without comment. The minister, with all their seminary training and theological reflection, has developed a nuanced (and perhaps postmodern) reading of the words, but they never share that nuance with their congregation. They just keep repeating the old words, and expect the people in the pews to get it by osmosis or something. I wish my liberal Christian colleagues would share more of their personal theology with the people.

    But of course, they can't. That would be heretical, and they might lose their job.

  3. Are we no longer heterodox? Depends how your define orthodoxy. If Paul Tillich is the standard, you're right, we're not all that heterodox. If, however, the historic creeds are the standard, as many Christian denominations including liberal ones continue to teach, we still are. Bluish seminarian also has good points -- our way of thinking may be more in keeping with that of the trained clergy of other liberal Christian denoms, but many of those pastors are keeping their thoughts to themselves rather than trying to redirect their insitutional doctrines or praxis.

  4. I tend to agree with bluish seminarian here. I think that liberal theology and liberal Christianity is pretty out of touch with the theological beliefs of the vast majority of Christians in the U.S.

    You say that "Fundamentalist Christians" have to act as if those out-dated doctrines are a reality, even if they know they're not. It's not just fundamentalists (who, by the way, are a very small percentage of Christians), it's most evangelicals, many mainline Protestants, and many Catholics. They don't have to convince themselves, it is a taken-for-granted reality that such things exist and are real. Isn't it much easier and probably comforting to buy into them literally rather than in some vague, metaphorical, sense that you're talking about?

    I ought to say that I am personally agnostic and am not averse to abandoning conventional Christian language altogether. I am UU because I see tremendous value in religion as a means of social and individual change, community-building, meaning-making, etc. I'm very Durkheimian in my views on religion.

    Your post was interesting, but to me it shows how out of touch many liberal Christians/theologians are with how Christianity is lived in real life.

    UUism may be considered heretical when you compare it to the thrust and mainstream of American religion. "Fundamentalism", by which you probably more mean evangelicalism, is the mainstream. There are more evangelicals than mainline Protestants today. What UUs do and talk about on a weekly basis is pretty heretical compared to what most Americans prefer in religion.

  5. Interesting post!

    I've been reading quite a bit lately about the Emergent movement and, in particular, prominent Emergent thinker Brian D. McLaren. Although he's dismissed by main "mainstream" American Christians as too progressive or too pomo, he nevertheless seems to think that Unitarian Universalism or even just lower case universalism are pretty out there. As to the latter, he writes, "[i]n my theological circles, universalism is one small step removed from atheism. It is probably more feared than committing adultery."

  6. Heresy, stripped of the clutter that has stuck to it over history, refers to the individual or sect that has chosen a set of beliefs (that are not deemed standard, mainstream or orthodox).

    By that standard, UUism is heresy, institutionalized. We expect UUs to be heretics--but we won't even tell them what sort of heresy they should embrace, as long as it fits within our principles. Heck, you can even be an orthodox heretic, if you want to.

  7. Kim Hampton1:52 AM

    Although I now attend a UU church, I come from a "fundie" (or very literalist) family. And from my experience, I believe that Stephen has it all wrong.

    While on the outside it looks like fundies take these ideas beyond the literal, once you start asking them what they believe, you will see that there are as many opinions on these subjects in fundamentalist land as there is in liberal/progressive/mainstream Christianity.

    The vast majority of Christians live out their religion with a lot more doubt and ambiguity than is given them credit. This is part of the reason that Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard continue to sell their books in numbers equal to some of the well-known "Christian" writers.

  8. Kim,
    I don't doubt that most Christians go through life with some doubt and questioning, even "fundamentalists." That's only human. My point was that liberal theology is totally out of touch with how most American Christians understand and practice religion. This is not to say that there is consensus and total commitment to every Christian doctrine and every biblical principle. You're really misunderstanding me.

    I believe that most Americans really to through life with little doubt that God exists, heaven exists, and many other things that religious liberals have gone to great lengths to pontificate and speculate over. There is a reason why a quarter of the U.S. population is evangelical Protestant - it seems to work for people. I am personally not Christian or even theist, and liberal theology is personally attractive to me, but I acknowledge, at least, that I am in the minority.

    Just because you don't agree with them doesn't mean that you have to believe that they are plagued by doubt and not as sincere as they seem. It also doesn't mean that you can't acknowledge that there are attractive things about it.

  9. Kim Hampton2:04 AM

    As I said in my post, I come from a fundie family. I'm the only one who isn't a fundie.

    I know that many fundies have more doubts than is lead to believe; I know this because I live with them.

    And while there are some people whose sincerity I really do question, that is not true for the majority. The majority of Christians are much more nuanced in their theology than I can write about. As in all things, the most vocal normally doesn't represent the majority.

  10. I think that the dialog between Kim and Stephen gets at the point I am trying to make.
    There is a difference between what people say and what people actually think.
    The problem is not just sincerity or consistency. It is also aggravated by the way that Barth's followers have understood his stance toward modern enlightenment doubts about the scientific and historical truth of Christian doctrine. Barth is understood to have argued that for the Christian community it does not matter what you actually believe, or how you struggle with doubt, but the task is to proclaim the Christian truth as strongly and purely as you can. He was completely opposed to presenting the doctrines as fitting the modern world. If they clash, so be it.
    So, when we talk with Barthian Christians, our dialog partners will not start with us in a shared verbal understanding of the "real" world and then work toward how the Christian doctrines are an apt metaphor for the real world. That's how liberals want to talk about it. They simply assert the metaphor is the "real" description of the world -- that's how they understand their task. After all, once you explain that you are building a metaphor, then the metaphor loses its power.
    In this dialogue, you cannot tell easily how seriously they believe what they say is "real". My suspicion is that all Christians in the educated, scientific, rational West are using Christian doctrine as a metaphor for the real world, whether they are conscious of it or not, and given the elasticity of metaphors, our supposed heresies are minor variations in the story.

  11. Many Unitarian beliefs appear similar to Eastern Orthodox beliefs. The only difference being that you don't believe in the Trinity, but they do. Unfortunately the Orthodox church is officially homophobic though.


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