Re-Organization, Evangelism and #UUPublicTheology

I have argued that Unitarian Universalism needs a major, once in lifetime, reorganization, a dramatic restructuring of this creaky system that was put in place at the time of merger in 1961.  After 55 years of unresolved internal conflicts between 'congregationalists' and 'institutionalists' (name them however you want), we need to create a structure that will allow us to respond creatively to the rapidly shifting demographic and cultural realities of nation we live in.

 We need to reorganize to create the capacity for evangelism and public theology in UnitarianUniversalism. We exist mostly as congregations, which are culture-bound, inward looking and largely absent from all the spaces where cultural ferment, exploration and networking are going on.

The present division of labor in Unitarian Universalism is that the local congregation does everything of substance and content. The denomination is authorized to speak only on those political and social issues that have been approved by the General Assembly. They may also develop services to serve existing congregations. Not surprisingly, the denominational structure is criticized persistently for being too political and too inward-looking.

The difference between public theology and public witness is that witness speaks, in theory, on behalf of the people to the powers that be. We want Congress to pass Immigration Reform. We want states to end the denial of marriage rights to LGBTQ people. Witness demands, lobbies and protests.  Public theology is a conversation with the people about essential reality and the moral/ethical choices that each of us have to make. Public Theology asks whose lives are we indifferent to. Public theology asks how we should live when the civilization we are part of is unsustainable and heading toward the death and suffering of billions of the world's people. Public theology challenges the tendency to go it alone and avoid community in daily life. Liberal public theology challenges the dominant discourse of demonization, and is a voice for humanizing our culture. (Discussion question: how is "standing on the side of love" a demand on government and how is it an ethical demand on ourselves, and on others?)

Again, we are not doing public theology well now, and we are not doing it relationally. We are not finding the people who share our views and developing relationships with them. This is the work of evangelism. We need to reorganize to create the capacity to have that conversation out in the public networks where the people are.


  1. Jamie H-R10:40 AM

    Is it better to have a top down approach, where the UUA becomes "the" voice of UU, or to have a distributed approach, teach the 1,000+ congregations to become outward facing and have 1,000 voices? Some mix of both? One facilitating the other?

  2. Steve Cook11:25 AM

    I think you’ve drawn a useful and important distinction here. As a person of faith, I’m certain that the dimensions of public theology (qua theology) you mention are sustained by the call of God (that power not made by human hands) defined or apprehended in many ways. However, I can also see no reason why conversations about essential reality, moral/ethical choices, indifference to suffering, etc. necessarily require a theistic component. Marxism doesn’t; there seem to be any number of movements or organizations that address those questions with no reference to theistic empowerment or vocation. How do you define “theology” in this schema that makes it something that the UUA, as a distinctly religious association, carries forward, as opposed to, say, Greenpeace?

  3. Jamie H-R: I think that the only body that could "teach the 1,000 congregations to become outward facing" is a central body that leads the way on public theology. Local congregations will inevitably end up promoting themselves (urging people to come and try them out, not a bad thing.) I see a more central evangelical body urging liberal religious values and virtues, at a more profound level.

  4. Steve, I think that Paul Tillich broke down the boundary between "theology" and "matters of ultimate concern." Also Adams, naming that "creating, sustaining and transforming power." I think UU's are still struggling to grasp the implications of those recognitions. Many humanists view Adam's formulation as sneaky theism. For UU Christians, like ourselves, it is hard to see non-theistic people's "matters of ultimate concern" as not being somehow less than God. (I think that is still part of our system, stemming from the trauma and wounding of merger, when UU Christians were so disrespected and patronized.) I am not sure that the personal motivations and ethical choices of a Greenpeace activist is really any different than UU friend of the earth. On an institutional level, of course, Greenpeace and the UUism, come out of different traditions and are different historical manifestations. We will always talk different talk, and appeal to different histories. Our "theological talk" will be about exploring, understanding and even harmonizing our traditions and practices, and evangelically, trying to make what we have learned relevant to the lives of people now.


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