Friday, August 21, 2015

Across the Great Divide (part three)

Let's pick up our exploration of the so-called "theist/atheist split" and look at the expressed experience of UU theists.  (The first and second parts of this series are just a click away if you missed them.)

Unitarian Universalism is the child, if you will, of Unitarianism and Universalism.  Both of these forebears were Christian traditions, albeit heretical ones.  It has been argued that the theological positions that gave each tradition its name can be traced back to the earliest days of Christianity.  What cannot be argued is that history shows them being systematically -- and sometimes quite brutally -- rejected by the mainstream.  Yet no matter how much of a trickle they sometimes became, the streams of Unitarianism and Universalism continued to flow alongside the river of orthodox Christianity.

In more modern times, Unitarianism and Universalism each found ways to evolve beyond the theological notions that had given them birth.  Universalism, for instance, began to champion what was called by some, "univerlistic Universalism."  This grew out of the notion that this world is one world and that we are one human family.  Fueled largely by the experiences of, and responses to, World Wars I and II, Universalists were passionate supporters of the United Nations, The International Declaration of Human Rights, and other manifestations of the assertion that we could no longer live so divided.

Unitarianism, on the other hand, expanded its historic emphasis on reason and the valuing of the individual and the rights of conscience.  This is, in large part, what made it such a hospitable environment for secular humanism.  If you acknowledge the right of individuals to think for themselves in issues of religion, there is virtually no end to the roads that might be trod.  Question the divinity of Jesus, you begin to question the teachings of the church and, then, even the authority of the Bible. Question the authority of the Bible and it isn't long until you're questioning the existence of God, and the need for such a concept. 

And all along and through all of this, the main streams (plural now) of Christianity continued to flow.  And always within those waterways there were people who were not convinced by all they saw and heard, people who could not comfortably simply go with the flow.  Sometimes -- often -- such people remained quiet because their questions and ideas were clearly unwelcome, if not downright dangerous.  In many cases these folks had not rejected everything about the tradition, yet their understandings and interpretations differed from the more orthodox around them.

One thing that has been changing across the entire religious landscape in recent decades is that a life-long commitment to one particular faith tradition has increasingly become less common. Choosing to be "unchurched" now has considerably less stigma attached to it.  The Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong refers to some of these people as "believers in exile."  In many cases they still see themselves as religious, perhaps even still Christian, yet they more and more have come to see themselves as people without a religious home.

The modern progressive Christian movement is one place these seekers have been able to settle.  Unitarian Universalism has been another.  For these "exiled believers" the promise of the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" is precisely what they did not feel encouraged to pursue previously.  Here, at long last, was a place where they could practice their faith without giving up their questions and doubts.  Here was an answer to the conundrum Bishop Spong posed in the preface to his 1998 book, Why Christianity MustChange or Die:  a bishop speaks to believers in exile:
Many of us can continue to be believers only if we are able to be honest believers.  We want to be people of faith, not people drugged on the narcotic of religion.  We are not able to endure the mental lobotomy that one suspects is the fate of those who project themselves as the unquestioning religious citizens of our age.  We do not want to be among those who fear that if we think about what we say about God, either our minds will close down or our faith will explode.  We are not drawn to those increasingly defensive religious answers of our generation.  Nor are we willing to pretend that these ancient words still have power and meaning for us if they do not.  We wonder if it is still possible to be a believer and a citizen of our century at the same time.
I think it is important to note that these words were written by someone who identifies as Christian.  He was, in fact, when he wrote this, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey.  Somehow he was able  -- and even desired -- to remain within the Christian fold even while holding such seemingly heretical views.  He has apparently been asked repeatedly why he hadn't simply walked away from the Christian faith for all of the reasons he describes above.  His response has been that he believes Christianity can change and that therefore it is important that those who see the need for change remain within the tradition to help birth that change.

Others, though, have felt as he does and have decided that the "mental lobotomy" looms all too ominously over the Christian religion, so they set forth for a path that seems open to the kind of questioning they long for -- Unitarian Universalism.  Imagine, then, the consternation felt as they discovered what seemed to be an openness to their questions and doubts but at the same time a rejection of their faith.  These people often experienced our movement as saying to them, essentially, that it was okay for them to question and challenge Christianity while not okay for them to take it seriously. More than once someone who professed a Christian identity has been encouraged to explore the United Church of Christ (sometimes their acronym, UCC, has been referred to as Unitarians Considering Christ), or told directly that it’s simply not possible for one to be both a Unitarian Universalist and a Christian.

It should be noted that not all of Unitarian Universalists theists identify themselves as some kind of Christian.  Many, in fact, do not or, at least, struggle mightily with the question of whether or not they should.  To make all of this more confusing, many Unitarian Universalist theists also see themselves as humanists.  As with secular humanists, these religious humanists see our own lives, and the lives of all with whom we share this tiny home as, what really matters -- what do we make of the lives we have right here and right now, and what do we do for others?  

Looking back over this and the two previous posts some points seem to stand out:
  • Many Unitarian Universaist atheists express feelings of being betrayed by a movement which promised them a safe place in which to explore and express their spiritual questing without the need to reference any kind of god or gods to do so.
  • Many UU theists feel that same sense of betrayal.  Here, where they had been promised an end to their exile they once again feel themselves to be marginalized.
  • UU atheists often express, more or less explicitly, the sense that Unitarian Universalism was theirs.  From the 1920s and 30s and on into the early 70s or 80s there is no doubt that the prevailing view of Unitarian Universalism -- both from within and without -- was that we were humanist to the core.  To have to struggle to hold on to "their" religious home is galling.
  • UU theists often express, more or less explicitly, the sense that Unitarian Universalism was theirs.  Prior to, and even continuing into, the late 40s both Unitarianism and Universalism largely maintained their identity as Christian traditions.  This was done even in the face of many other Christian traditions denying them that identity.  In some ways, perhaps, it was this denial that gave extra encouragement to continuing insisting on it.  To have to struggle, now, to reclaim "their" religious home is galling.
  • Many Unitarian Universalist atheist humanists do not see themselves in the same light as the "strident, brittle, angry, old-school, sterile, ultra-rational atheist humanists" -- all words that have been used to describe (and, honestly, caricature) a specific and particularly fundamentalist strand of modern day humanism, yet which have also been used as a broad brush to paint all humanists homogeneously.  There is a great diversity of understanding among Unitarian Universalist atheist humanists.  Our interfaith -- intrafaith -- conversations, however, rarely try to illuminate these subtleties and nuances.
  • Unitarian Universalist theists -- and perhaps especially those who identify as Unitarian Universalist Christians -- do not see themselves in the same light as the "bullying, irrational, needy, superstitious, intolerant, bigoted theists and Christians."  Again, these are all words that have been used to describe a particularly fundamentalist strand of modern-day Christianity, yet which have also been used as a broad brush to paint all theists homogeneously.  There is a great diversity of understanding among Unitarian Universalist Christians and theists.  Our interfaith -- intrafaith -- conversations, however, rarely try to illuminate these subtleties and nuances.

More than a few parallels, aren't there?  One final point of comparison: both the theists and the atheists are trying to make sense out of this world, this lifetime we share.  Both are grappling, or dancing, with the twin realities the Rev. Forrest Church lifted up -- being alive and having to die.  Whether either would acknowledge it about the other, the fact is that both are, in their own ways, “seeking truth with reason as their guide.”

So ... what are we to do now?  To the extent that any of this is at all true, where do we go from here?  The last installment of this series will offer some suggestions.

Pax tecum,

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