Appreciating the Unitarian Universalist Theological Method

"Solidarity, Grandiosity, Reflection, Discovery"

I admit that ever since I came back to this, the religious home of my childhood, in 1989, I have been cranky about UU Theology.  After all, how deep can an agnostic theology go?  It seemed often to be a mishmash of feel-good generalizations, psychobabble and anodyne exhortations, seasoned with the spice of leftwing cant.  It resisted making any substantive link with Liberal Christian Theology, from which it has half-emerged, and so it floated free.

I have come to appreciate our methods more, now.  I am not being ironic, or sarcastic, or setting you up for a punchline. This is for real, not an extended improvisational Robin Williams riff.  I will goof around a little on the way to my serious conclusions.

Step One:  Solidarity.

Ever have the feeling that much of our theologizing is rationalizations for our already taken political and social views?  You're not crazy to think so, because that is what much of it is.  I am saying that is a feature and not a bug.

We move through the world, much like everyone else does, responding to the events and people we encounter, in real life and in the news and media.  Based on our experiences, our learnings, we see ourselves in solidarity with some people and not with others.  That's OK; the world is a divided place and we cannot be on all sides of every conflict.  This human act of seeing ourselves as being allied with others is the beginning of our theologizing.

Step Two: Grandiosity.

OK, I am being a bit ironic with this, but there is a way that we inflate our preferences into great and glittering generalizations.  Our first principle is one example:  it began as a broad anti-discrimination statement, a rhetorical inflation of that statement that we welcomed everyone regardless of race, color, creed, national origin etc. etc. etc.  Such statement were common in the 1950's and 1960's when Unitarianism and Universalism merged in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle.  Our mainstream was trying to express our sense of solidarity with the victims of discrimination and prejudice.   Through a long process, what emerged was a statement about the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  It was a bit grandiose, but in a good way.

Without grandiosity, young high school athletes see playing tennis as a way to build good habits which will give them a good fitness routine when they are middle-aged desk jockeys.  With grandiosity, they play tennis because someday they will win at Wimbledon.  Many people lose their natural adolescent grandiosity as they mature, and it is a tragedy.

Our solidarity with environmentalism became a grandiose statement about respecting the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part.

Our commitment to continuing the struggle for racial justice became a broad statement declaring ourselves as not only non-racist, but also anti-racist and further, anti-oppression, which is becoming the greatest athlete of all times in every sport.  

3. Step Three: Reflection.

The gap between our grandiose formulations of our sentiments and the practical realities we live in becomes the creative tension the drives our theologizing.  Our grandiosity caused us to articulate a theory of inherent worth and dignity which has led us to a radical humanism.  I look at our solidarity with transgender people and wonder if we would have gotten there if we had not gone beyond solidarity with the victims of discrimination based on factors over which the victim has no control.   Starting from the point of view that everyone has worth and dignity right now, as they are, accelerated the process.

Our theologizing now seems to center on these three things:
a. what does inherent worth and dignity mean?  How does it relate to moral and ethical distinctions between good and evil?  What is the nature of humanity?  Where do evil actions come from?  What is the relationship between our own inherent worth and dignity and the injustices we participate in and the privileges we enjoy?

b.  what does it mean to live in an interdependent web of life, where we are a part of the cause of everything we see and where we are conditioned by everything else?  How can we be moral and ethical when we have no place to stand to make a judgement?  How can we talk about God when there is no transcendent anymore -- nothing that is the unmoved mover?  There is nothing outside of the web?

c.  Is oppression a part of human nature?  Or is it an accident of history which can be overcome?   Is everyone a victim of oppression?  If so, how can it be oppression and not just the fact that life can be hard at times?

4. Step Four: Discovery

We end up in new places as a result of these reflections; we develop new ethical and moral demands.  I look at the movement toward ethical eating that seems to be developing among younger UU's.  To me it looks like a replay of some of the arguments between the hippies and the radicals of 1970-1975.  I chose the hamburgers and politics then.  But, I also realize that something new and different is going on -- that gestures of solidarity with the poor and with animals is taking some of us to new places.

Conclusion: I think that Unitarian Universalist theology has the great strength of pragmatism; it arises out of the real world and our experiences in it.  It moves from practice to theory and back again in a cycle of learning and knowledge.  It focuses us not on metaphysics (what is the nature of reality: a philosophical dead end for religion) but on ethics and morality.  It asks us to speak to  humanity about the real choices we face together.

Yes, the great theological traditions of all the world's religions are still there.  But our job is not to determine exactly how we fit in with them, how to harmonize our truths with theirs.  Our job is struggle with how to live, act, celebrate and suffer, and finally die in this, the only world we have right now.  


  1. ML cohen4:37 PM

    By exploring these readings as insights I strive to value other.

    I cannot live without the concept of other -- and striving to communicate across faith boundaries is a joyful experience.



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