dialectical theology

"Theology is about eternal things". Someone once said that to me, objecting to what he called "political advocacy" in church.

And really, I suppose he was right in line with traditional theology. Theology was about the eternal structure of the world: the unchanging God, forever fallen humanity and the question of where each individual will spend eternity. Theology was about the unchanging truths which were to be applied to life. Theology was about the deciphering the current meaning of the timeless truths.

Dialectical Theology, on the other hand, assumes a conversation between the practice of theological reflection and the current state of the world. It assumes that what was once thought of as "eternal truths" and the "unchanging divine order" are, in fact, products of particular times and places. Theology is a summation of what people have conceptualized about the nature of life given their experience.

I recently wrote of the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism:
The Principles are relentlessly positive. They outline a list of social virtues: key nouns in them are words like "dignity", "justice", "truth", "conscience" and "community". 
The Principles never hint at the obstacles to all these virtues. They never indicate why these virtues are not universally practiced already. Oppression is the unacknowledged shadow that falls across their sunny optimism. Consequently, they are not dialectical; they do not situate themselves in the push and pull of actual human history. 
The statement that Unitarian Universalism intends to be an anti-oppressive religious movement is the emergence of our liberal dialectical theology, a theology that contends with the realities of world as we know it. Of course, we have never not been part of the real world, the actual push and pull of human history. It is just that our theological language did not give us the tools to name it.
 I think it is remarkable that the seven principles were codified during the Reagan administration. We knew about systemic oppression at that time. The 70's were a period in which the white Civil Rights supporters were educated about "institutionalized racism". Everything that happened after Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act -- the urban uprisings, the assassinations, the election of Nixon on the basis of the white backlash, the rise of movement conservatism -- was an education in the intractability of white racism.

Unitarian Universalism had seen the emergence of our opposite: a conservative religious movement whose methods, beliefs, and public theology were explicitly antagonistic to us. The religious right was explicit about their opposition of the whole liberal project in religion and in society at large.

So why were our Principles so one-sided, so sunnily optimistic?

We can see the choice being made: "we will only talk about what we are for, and say nothing about what we are against, and what is against us." Why did we make that choice? And what were its consequences?

This is a question that dialectical theology asks. In an environment which was rapidly and decisively polarizing, why did we want to get "above the fray?'

Dialectical Theology asks this question: As the culture of the United States turned sharply to the Right for 40 plus years, how did Unitarian Universalism reshape its public theology in response? In what ways, did UUism resist and defy the turn to the Right? In what ways, did we accommodate it? In what ways did it sidestep it? How did we re-conceptualize our essential messages?

So much happened within UUism during the period of conservative cultural hegemony: the end of the humanist hegemony, the rise of female religious leadership, the whitening of our movement, the welcoming congregation movement, the seven principles and six sources, the Gray hymnal, the emergence of CUUPS, and the UU Buddhist fellowship, the re-emergence and renewal of the Christian Fellowship, the awkward passive resistance to the turn back to anti-racism.

How do all these contradictory developments and currents reveal what we know about ourselves, humanity and the world?


  1. Rev. Scott Prinster6:43 PM

    One way in which this choice was made was in rejecting any description of our activities or programs that involved negative language. Too many UUs bristled at the labels "anti-racism" and "anti-oppression," sniffing, "I'd rather be for something than against something."

    I've pondered over how much of this is about the long-lived criticism that UUs could only identify what we were not, but not what we were. However, I'm convinced that at least some of it was simply a word-game to excuse ourselves from engaging with the ugly and cruel sides of humanity. It's so much more pleasurable to celebrate the platitudes of inclusion and goodness than it is to have to name and wrestle the specific demons of racism, homophobia, misogyny, dehumanization, etc.

  2. thank you, Scott, for engaging this issue. I think that the hangover from the 60's/70's struggles moved people to avoid conflict, to seek a peaceful way. Wrestling with the demons you name seemed really impossible and lonely and embittering. The Right seemed so strong and so mean. I think what we got out of that move to the positive was more nuanced than just pleasure -- there was fear, and grief, and impotence.

  3. Joan Burleigh, UU Congregation of Ann Arbor11:24 AM

    UU's often seem uncomfortable speaking from a religious perspective in public, their "not-so-public" theology. As the result the public often hear only one religious voice, from the Right. Paul Rasor's book, "Claiming Prophetic Witness" calls UU's to show up in the public square and offers a theological and practical foundation for engagement. Can we see ourselves as both intelligent and religious?


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