Public Theology and the Social Gospel

A friend on Facebook bemoaned what they saw as a lack of a social gospel in Unitarian Universalism.

Because she had made this comment in a response to my earlier post on the National Church Leadership Institute 2015 (NCLI15), I felt the need to speak, but my first response was "Just Shoot Me Now. Please."

My desk
This blog, which is the bulk of my work for the last two and half years, has been all about encouraging and participating in theological reflection from a UU perspective on the condition of the world as we know it.  I use the hashtag #uupublictheology for this work.The word "public" comes from the Latin "populus" meaning people and the word "theology" is from the Greek words "theos" and "logos", meaning "talk about God." Public theology is talking about the life of the collective people and of God. And as Universalists, we now understand the "people of God" as the whole human race.

We wake up in the middle of the story. There are thousands of years of human history that happened before we were born. That history touches and shapes every aspect of our lives and we are not conscious of it, at least at first. It turns out that the life each of us leads is one small part of much larger events and stories.

Theology has always been the telling of human history: who are we, where did we come from and where are we going. What does that story require of us in the present. What is the good news of that story?

For religion to be helpful to the human condition, it must tell the true story, which means that religious leaders must be skilled historians, able to both know what happened and be able to tell what happened. They must also be skilled at deconstructing false narratives, mythologies about the past and present.

Most religious leaders fail at history. They spin sentimental tales, self-serving narratives, and moralistic anecdotes. They interpret ancient texts and create midrashes to extend those texts when they don't say what is needed. But they rely on the conventional wisdom to understand the story of their own people.

So, when I try to explore #uupublictheology, I have to start with history. Not "UUHistory" that sentimental story-telling that places 'us' at the center, but US History and world history. Who are we in that context?

I marvel at the values we hold, and frankly wonder how we came to learn them, given the reality of our particular history. UUism was the essence of an establishment religion and the direction that it is slowly moving into an oppositional stance? What is it that we have learned, and is that the fragment of good news that we have to share?

Public theology is the search for the good news, the real, the true, the unsentimental hard-as-iron good news in the midst of human history. There are so many easy answers, but we can't accept them if they are not really true.  There is so much justified despair and pessimism, but while we acknowledge it, we are not its prophets.

If the sense of a social gospel is weak among Unitarian Universalists, if all  our prophetic preaching does not seem compelling, then we need to talk. We need to talk some more; we also need to act; but mostly we need to reflect theologically together. We need to talk about the world's people, their past and their future from the largest possible perspective. We need to engage in public theology.


  1. So...I came to Unitarian Universalism because of its history. It was in a class American Social and Intellectual History taught by a protégé of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

    When I compare both the Unitarian and the Universalists to the other uniquely American religions that appeared in the 19th century, I see some similarities. There was a sense of the pioneer spirit in adopting new beliefs for a new land. Joseph Smith came up with a religion grounded in American geography. The different utopian communities (Shakers, Oneida, Amana, Zoar) tried to find ways to be in community together. The Spiritualists and Christian Scientists used a kind of scientific method to understand their personal experiences of miracle, mystery and afterlife. The Universalists competed with the fire-and-brimstone evangelists with a message based on love instead of fear. The Unitarians used the "New Criticism" of the Bible and encounters with world religions to question dogma.

    But there was one big difference, as I see it. The Universalists and Unitarians operated within the accountability structure of our congregational polity. None of the other "new" religions I mentioned had that.

    It's this accountability structure that I think is the important part of our DNA. But it goes beyond being accountable to each other within a congregation or between congregations. It's the our accountability to "creating the Kingdom of God" with our human hands. We need to allow ourselves the humility to be admonished when we fall short. Martin Luther King admonished us in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is doing it now. (As James Luther Adams reminded us, the religious liberals failed to respond to it in Nazi Germany.)

    Starting with Justice GA at Phoenix, I think we are learning how to develop this humility of accountability for today's challenges, but we still (myself included) have a long way to go.


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