Friday, August 11, 2017

The Buried Narrative in the Sources Statement

In the 20th Century, the Liberal Protestant denominations of Unitarianism and Universalism were challenged from within by a Religious humanist movement which questioned the existence of the God of the Bible and the continued use of liturgies that directed worship to that Deity. The Humanist movement reflected the theological and philosophical trends in the intellectual culture of the times.

The Humanist challenge to traditional Unitarianism and Universalism took on a geographical and historical character. The Humanist congregations tend toward the West (meaning West of the Hudson River) while the Liberal Protestants were stronger among the older and more established churches of New England, many of which pre-dated the Unitarian controversy of the early 19th century.

The conflict, which became known as the humanist-theist conflict, was sharp and protracted. Congregations split, members left, ministers lost their careers, stained glass windows were removed or covered up, hymns re-written, liturgies changed.

But before either denomination formally split, the controversy was defused by a turn toward a pluralistic agnosticism. Both sides tacitly agreed that no one knew the whole truth, and that therefore, multiple and competing theological perspectives could co-exist in the same worshipping community.

The merger of the AUA and UCA took place well into the history of the humanist-theist conflict. By 1961, Humanism was dominant in both denominations, but in a tense series of negotiations, just enough room for Liberal Protestantism was preserved in the new denomination to maintain the support and participation of liberal Christians and other theists.

Merger cemented the consensus: The prevailing theological perspective was an "agnostic pluralism" and UU liturgy was conducted, in most places, with a humanist language set. A small minority of congregations continued to use Liberal Protestant or otherwise theistic liturgies. The humanist language set became the official language of UUism at the time of merger and ever since.

The turn toward Pluralistic Agnosticism set the stage for Unitarian Universalists to be inspired a wider diversity of theological perspectives: mysticism, world religions which were included in the original Sources statement. The inclusion of the 6th Source established an institutional process by which additional Sources could become official acknowledged.

While the diversity of theological perspectives has become a centrifugal force in Unitarian Universalism, it is has been offset by the centripetal, or unifying, force of our public theology. Our public theology is our theological understanding of our work in the world, or mission. Our public theology is expressed in the Seven Principles, which have also continued to be developed over time. The most important development in the Seven Principles has been the further commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural religious movement.


Comment: This is what I consider to be a thumbnail sketch of the story behind the Sources statement. This history, however, is only a part of a larger history, which I think needs to uncovered. The question is this: how does the story we tell about ourselves hide the decisions that were made to keep black religious liberals out of power in the UUA?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

More on the Sources

The main problem I see with the Sources is that they hide the theological dispute that has shaped contemporary Unitarian Universalism: the Humanist rebellion against liberal Protestantism, a historic event that happened throughout most of the 20th century.

As is true with all historic events, that Humanist Rebellion against Liberal Protestantism has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is a story. It is, to a large extent, our story.

By simply listing brief summations of Humanism and Theism as differing options on a menu of theological perspectives, the Sources statement don't explain how their clash threatened to split liberal religion, and how that clash was defused and partially resolved.

I won't retell the whole story of the conflict, but will remind everyone that it was not a silly conflict. It was a serious dispute over the nature of reality that would define the teachings and liturgy of our religious communities. A lot was at stake: churches gained and lost members, ministers lost their careers, congregations were split. Beautiful stained glass windows were covered up or destroyed.

Ultimately, Unitarian Universalists moved toward a theology of pluralistic agnosticism about the propositions of formal theology. All opinions would be welcome, as no one really knows the whole truth. (The parable that best exemplifies the retreat from the battle lines is the story of the "Blind Men (sic) and the Elephant" which seemed to come into Unitarian thought with its re-telling by Sophia Lyon Fahs in "Long Ago and Many Lands" in 1948).

The Sources statement also exemplifies that Pluralistic Agnosticism: a menu of differing theological traditions that allows each person to pick and choose their truth.

The defusing the Humanist-Theist dispute by turning to Pluralistic Agnosticism had two major effects.

1. Pluralistic Agnosticism allowed UU's to acknowledge other spiritual and religious traditions beyond the binary of humanism and theism. These newly discovered, or re-discovered, and acknowledged influences are summed in the source statements about mysticism, world religions, and earth-centered spirituality. I suspect that as time goes on, more sources will be discovered and acknowledged in a statement of the influences on our living tradition: western Buddhism, Feminism.

2. But for all the growing diversity of theological influences on contemporary Unitarian Universalism, what unites UU's (as much as that is possible) is our public theology, as expressed in the Principles list, and in the 2nd Source: "words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love."

(Isn't it interesting that the Sources statement was explicit about the powers and structures of evil" which the Principles fail to describe what stands in the way of their realization?)





Monday, August 07, 2017

The Sources of our Living Tradition: A Critique

The Six Sources portion of our bylaws needs to be examined again. I think the Sources statement are a mess, more confusing and confused than wrong.

First of all, they are ahistorical. They do not describe the actual historical process of our formation. You would think that a "sources" statement would describe an intellectual history. There is a when and a where and a who behind each of these sources, which is not explained.

For example, our historical origin is in Protestant Christianity. Indeed, many of our churches were actual Protestant Christian churches for long periods of their history. It is also true that for many current Unitarian Universalists, their personal religious history begins in Christianity. Unitarian Universalism sprouted from a specific branch on the Christian family tree and our sources statement should be able to explain that.

One of our most important sources is the humanist movement of the 20th Century. The Sources statement bows to it in the Source Five.  But the Sources statement does not describe the revolutionary character of Humanism as a religious movement. Historically, humanism makes no sense except as a rebellion against liberal Christianity. Our Sources do not convey that fact that our religious movement is rooted in both sides of what seemed to be a "zero-sum" theological conflict.

I believe that the Sources statement is a like a family narrative that hides, or disguises, or minimizes, a family trauma. The falsity at the core of the narrative is the implication that to our ancestors at the time whether or not one believed in God was a mere difference of opinion without any lasting consequence. This is like thinking that Cain and Abel had an minor difference of opinion on agricultural policy.

If the humanist rebellion against Protestantism was the trauma, liberal religion survived it. But how? Because how we survived the trauma has formed us, even more than the trauma itself. Theologically, the mechanism of survival was to move to a stance of agnostic pluralism. Agnostic pluralism says that no one can really know the ultimate truth, so therefore many opinions about the truth can coexist.

The move to agnostic pluralism is the hidden, or buried, event that dictates the form of the Sources statement.

Each of the other statements refer to a historic event in our common intellectual history. Those events are presented as disconnected summary ideas abstractly stated. Hidden in those summary abstractions are the influence of the Christian social gospel, the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent liberation movements, the rise of Western Buddhism, global immigration, the women's movement and on and on. All of this social history has been our sources, and all of it is hidden when we talk about those Sources.

None of this rich intellectual history is revealed in the Sources statement. The statement is designed to blur this history in order to avoid conflict.

The Sources are, therefore, not only ahistorical; they are idealist. Movements of people and of the Spirit, are reduced to summarizing phrases and then those disembodied ideas are thrown into a pot together without explaining their interrelationship.

The result is that our sourcing statements promote a theological pluralism that is individualistic. We have a cafeteria-style history, a salad bar of memory. You pick and choose. The Source statements frequently refer to "we", to "us" and to "our". But in all cases, that collective pronoun is assumed to partial and voluntary.

Note how we assume that the Principles make a unified whole, but the Sources do not. And so, the Principles take on a normative dimension -- they describe how we should act, a set of guidelines to which we can held accountable. The Sources defeat any attempt to appeal to a common history, or to common obligations that arise from our past.