Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Renewed, Equitable, Inclusive Unitarian Universalist Theology

The truest thing I can say about Unitarian Universalist theology is that I know very little about it. When I came into Unitarian Universalism I had an above-average familiarity with the history and polity of the faith, for a newcomer. Even so, I've discovered that there is so much more to learn about the culture and practice of UUism than I could have obtained from books, the sort of learning that only comes about through direct experience with congregations and collective action. Even as I begin the path into UU ministry, a question mark in my mind hangs over the topic of UU theology. What is it, really? Can it be defined without becoming exclusionary?

"We rarely seek to return to the literal Unitarianism or Universalism of the seventeenth century except in the broadest sense. That is because the influx of other voices, including the early women ministers, Transcendentalists, humanists, feminists, and people from earth-centered and other traditions have enhanced our faith. In the same way, embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion and the spiritual disciplines they require will further enrich us." p14*

Through part the 20th century, Unitarian Universalism became strongly identified with Humanism. I myself wrote a few years ago (and republished on Medium last year) commenting: 'Unitarian Universalism at its finest takes a humanistic approach to world religions and the spiritual teachings of the ages.' As a Humanist, that works for me. At the same time, as a religious organization it is only to be expected that Unitarian Universalism will formulate some coherent theology beyond that, given that we are a group that is diverse in perspectives. Unitarian Universalism might have a humanistic approach, but it is not Humanism.

"We are a faith that has not been investing enough in theology, theological schools, or theologians, at a time when many who would bring new life and vitality to our communities are looking for guiding principles." p.14

Unitarian Universalism counts on two graduate schools to provide ministerial preparation specific to our tradition. These are Meadville/Lombard Theological School and Starr King School for the Ministry. While people preparing for ordination and fellowship as UU ministers can attend any ATS accredited school for their Master of Divinity, there remain certain requirements for familiarity with denominational history, polity, and theology that must be fulfilled. So, while I'll be attending Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology for my MDiv, I'm also attending Starr King School for the Ministry for UU studies. 

The challenge that the Commission on Institutional Change report brings in this regard is that more investment is needed, an particularly in providing a platform for voices long-ignored and even suppressed among us. When I think of 'Unitarian Universalist theologian,' the first name that comes to mind is James Luther Adams, and the rush of faces I then picture are all white. Here's my problem: there are theologians of color within UUism, so why don't they come immediately to mind? I'm sure this is both a personal deficit on my part, as well It is concerning that UUism doesn't seem to have a clear understanding of its theology. It's troubling that people of color have long not be able to participate in engaging in theological work for this tradition.

"In an age when so many struggle to find meaning, a community formed through a set of commonly held beliefs can form a stronger bond than one formed through antipathy toward rejected beliefs." p. 14

While I think a racist and patriarchal ideology drives evangelicalism more than theology, there is no lack of theological effort expressed within that tradition. The trouble is that the latter seems to function in service to the former most of the time, an expression of the fears and prejudices of certain white people. The ideology dictates what should be found in holy writ and promulgated, and what should be ignored or explained away. Having a canonical text doesn't seem to have provided any particular control on human bias and bigotry, so surely lack of scripture alone won't pose a problem. Whatever we come up with will only serve the purpose if it's life-bringing and liberatory. That same standard, as I see it, applies to the measurement of any theological system.

"The idea that 'you can believe anything you want and be a Unitarian Universalist' is not valid. We have a theological container within which one can hold a wide range of beliefs about God, about how to practice one;'s faith, and about how to live. Because we live at the intersection of multiple traditions, defining this container is essential. Because much of the preserved theological work is from white theologians and scholars, we also need to re-engage that work through contemporary lenses." p15

While someone can be a good Unitarian Universalist and believe in the trinity (though I doubt many do), there are definitely limits on who would be at home among us.  If a Trump-supporting, anti-immigrant, homophobic white man were to attend a typical UU service, he would likely feel quite uncomfortable. Certainly some of our congregations are more like think tanks with music than churches, but that isn't the case generally. In the average UU service such a person would likely see gay or lesbian people participating, hear about the struggles of refugees, and be invited with everyone else to reflect on what would make for a better world. It's unlikely that our MAGA friend would come around again later, unless it were to protest. Or, perhaps he would feel challenged and — miracles of a sort do happen — begin deconstructing his hostile worldview. Unless he were to change, he would not be able to 'believe anything' and really become one of us without hiding most of his identity. 

In order to begin working to undo the wrongs of the past, and in the interests of forming a renewed theological perspective, we need to begin prioritizing the voices of people of color. This is a justice issue, and it is a practical matter. By providing reliable platforms to people of color to do the work of theology among us, we are beginning to set something right, and are giving ourselves the opportunity to hear what too long has been denied space among us. By doing so, not only can fresh life be breathed into our religious body, but also we'll finally start to have a clearer picture of what a Unitarian Universalist theology looks like, and maybe I'll feel a little less ignorant.

*All indented quotes are from 'Widening the Circle of Concern: Report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change'