Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 8: Honoring Human Agency

The issue of human agency divides religious thought.

On the one hand, there are many who hold to a "high doctrine of Providence".  They hold that everything is in God's hands, or fate's or destiny's or whatever they understand Karma to be. From a pop star winning an award, to a football team winning the championship, to good health, to disease, and to tragedy, and even to tornados hitting elementary schools, everything is the often inscrutable will of God.  It's both a comforting and terrifying way to look at the world.  

A "low doctrine of Providence" on the other hand holds that more of life is subject to chance, luck, happenstance and human agency.  Yes, tornados happen, and elementary schools can unluckily be in their path, but human beings have the power to build safer schools, and human beings have the agency to act appropriately in a tornado to save their lives.  Much of what happens is out of our control, but we do have agency to make a safer, better life for ourselves and others.  Agency is the ability to make potentially effective, purposeful, conscious self-directed action.

Liberal Christianity is Christianity re-interpreted in the knowledge of human agency.  It began in the period of the Enlightenment when the intellectual developments of the time reinvigorated the idea of human agency.  Human freedom was imagined. 

Reason, rationality, science were, at first, seen as the carriers of human agency.  It was thought that they were the means by which human beings could take active steps to assert some control over their lives.  Now, we know that they are only some of the tools that a person has to act in freedom.

(Because of the historic circumstances in which Liberal Christianity originated, it is often criticized for being the intellectual plaything of the elites, or being overly invested in rationality and the intellect.  The criticisms miss the point; it is not the intellect that matters.  The intellect is one of the faculties through which human agency works.  The education of the intellect is still a privilege of the elite, but human agency is an attribute of every human being, no matter their circumstance.)

Human agency is the possibility of human freedom.  It is not the idea of unlimited human power.  There are some things that are beyond our control, but agency describes that ability to make a conscious response to any circumstance one is in.

Unitarian Universalism has long been identified with the freedom to believe.  Given the belief-orientation of the religious environment from which we came, it is not surprising that we named our belief in human agency as the freedom to believe.  Now, we know that the religious life is so much more than what you believe.  It is how you act, it is your basic values, it is, to use Peter Morales's phrase, what you love. 

As I re-imagine Unitarian Universalism, I see us to be even more committed to human agency:  Each of us has the power to be the kind of person we want to be, to develop the virtues and character traits we want to have.  Agency gets called different things in different circles.  It can be called self-differentiation; some call it self-determination and see it in broader social terms; some call it empowerment; some call it freedom; some call it autonomy.  But everywhere around the world, you see people claiming that power for themselves.  We have faith in that claim.


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