The Purifying Fire and the Infinite Demand

I suggested recently that modern Unitarian Universalism's big bang of beginning was the explosive collision of liberal Protestantism and Humanism in the early to mid 20th Century.

Liberal Protestantism since the Enlightenment had become increasingly soft on the truth claims of Christianity.  Historical criticism of the Bible and Darwinism had made it clear that the biblical accounts, long accepted as historical fact, were not, in fact, true.  Turn of the century Fundamentalism had retreated to a position which asserted that the Biblical accounts were true, modern knowledge be damned.

Humanism brought a theologically realist critique to liberal Protestantism.  Everything that was not true per modern science was really not true.  Theology had to be about truth if it was about anything; after all, it is the truth that sets us free.

Humanism was a purifying fire to liberal Protestantism, burning away everything that was being preserved out of habit, out of a desire to maintain respectability, out of sentimental attachment.

The larger part of the Unitarian movement embraced it, enough so that throughout much of the country, it became an oddity for a Unitarian to also claim to be a Christian, or even a theist.

As we know, though, liberal Protestantism hung in among the Unitarians.  There were two saving remnants: many of the New England Unitarians retained their Christianity and their theisms.  They carefully balanced the demands of humanism with Christian or theist sentiments.  Institutionally, they had great strength, based as they were in some of the most established and well-endowed churches in the Association.  Another saving remnant were a portion of the Universalists, who had not gone in the World Religions direction exemplified by Kenneth Patton.

It now seems that the Humanist tide has peaked and begun to ebb. In fact, while overt Christianity seems to remain a minority status, much of contemporary Unitarian Universalism is adopting the styles and manners of Protestantism.  We know refer to ourselves as a "faith" that engages in "worship" and "prayer."  We talk of our "mission" and are now turning toward "evangelism".  Our clergy show up at public events in clerical collars; it is how they express their "call."  While UU's often, in words, make clear that we are something different than Protestant, if you turn the sound down, and just watch us in action, it's hard to see us as anything but the most liberal of the liberal Protestants.


Our Protestant DNA is still part of us, and we turn to it when we need to express the sense that we must live life in response to an infinite demand.   Simon Critchley writes The Faith of the Faithless
"faith [is] not the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather a lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand." 

Critchley believes that faith so defined is available to the agnostic, the atheist and the non-believer.  I believe the same.  You can strip out all the concepts, but the deep sense still remains that the truth of the Universe makes a demand on you and that you must choose the better way to respond to it.

The scientific view of reality is not morally compelling.  There is no reason to let your little light shine because it is going to go out soon enough.  If you do a strict analysis, probably the stress caused by thinking about global warming is probably more dangerous to your health than global warming itself.

The squirrels in my back yard are fat and happy this fall.  I am pretty sure that they are not concerned that other squirrels somewhere else are too skinny to go into a harsh winter.  It's luck, but where in the laws of nature is it written that one should respond to good luck with gratitude and generosity beyond your own blood kin. No where.

Yes, if you do good in the eyes of your friends, self-interested as they are, you might be remembered fondly for a decade or two. A lot of good that will do you.  The evolutionary process is going to continue, and the notion that somehow we will change the future by seizing control of evolution now is scandalously naive.  And for that, you're saying I should pledge my life, my fortune and my sacred honor.  Really, it's not enough motivation to miss Modern Family on Wednesday night to go to some god-awful meeting.

But we Unitarian Universalists (and we are by no means the only ones) don't live that way.  We have made some instinctive subjective commitment to some infinite demand.  Somewhere we heard a call that demanded that we respond to good luck with gratitude and generosity and to misfortune with solidarity.  It makes sense to us that while Love may always see more than two sides to every conflict, it's a pretty clear choice whether to choose love or indifference as one's guiding principle.

Somehow the purifying fire of humanism has left that subjective commitment to living in response to an infinite demand whole, brighter and shinier than ever.  If Unitarian Universalism is to respond well to the crises ahead for our communities, our nation and our world, we will have to define ourselves more by what was revealed by the purifying fire, and less by the fire itself.


  1. Hi Tom,
    Interesting post, and I love following your thoughts. You might be interested in the work of Karen Armstrong about how the literal interpretation of the Bible is actually a modern way to read it--earlier generations did not necessarily read it as historical fact. See a bit more at my blog--or her book A Case for God.

  2. Clyde Grubbs12:46 PM

    It is difficult to live into James Luther Adams with his radical laicism that asserts that the Spirit is blowing through the conversations of every believer in covenant community calling each of the preisthood and prophethood of all, with some psssing nod to Protestantism.

    The congregation as a wisdom school for individualists who are searching for something very personal doesn't lead us to commitment to stand on the side of Love. (When Love is not a subjective feeling but a state of relational rightness, a place where as Buber would suggest we meet God.


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