I ended yesterday’s post with a thought from Forrest Church, who in his full life of serving as the senior minister for All Souls Church in NYC, as the author of a host of spiritual books, and as a committed and articulate champion of Unitarian Universalism, was also able to say yes to Jesus without acquiescing to any of the supernatural implications, creeds, or dogmas.
Like the liberal theological stock that came before him , Church was able to bring forth his ideas, using the light of reason. His voice, along with others in American Unitarian Christianity (and Universalism), emerge from a common historical prism and context. While today there is a great variance of beliefs amongst congregations and congregants (this is an understatement!), they each evolved from the Age of Enlightenment. Yet…
All of this was seated in an era which began in Western Europe with theories of philosophical and scientific luminaries the likes of (DesCartes, 1633 and Issac Newton, 1688, respectively),who gave the human mind preeminent status over the rest of the body. This glorification of human reason,which would in hindsight have its own set of limitations, allowed for fresh breezes to blow through the unyielding and sometimes suffocating interpretation of scripture and tradition.
While hotly contested, many theologians and parishioners began to believe that the meaning in Christianity should be focused more on this life and less on the here after. It is what Jesus said and did that were paramount, not who he was or wasn’t. These faithful did not consider themselves to be blasphemers or even heretics. They simply felt that this was the natural and logical progression of Christian faith, whose seeds of dissent were planted at the time of the Reformation (1517) and were borne from the much rockier soil of turbulent Jerusalem.
William Ellery Channing, educated in the Congregational spirit at Harvard, became the foremost Unitarian preacher in the U.S. during this time of widening and shifting viewpoints. Channing extolled the possibility for revelation through reason rather than solely from scripture. Noting in his sermons, “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) and “Likeness to God”, we could choose to reject the notion of divine election put forth by the Calvinists or the idea of human nature coming from a state of total depravity, and instead believe in human goodness and human potential.
“We do then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity…to us, as to the Apostle and primitive Christians, there is one God, ever the Father. With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God. We are astonished that any man (person) can read the New Testament and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God.”
Today’s Unitarian Universalists form a wide swath of belief; there are those who believe in a traditional God, another kind of God, no God, or Something Else. Like Channing and his fellow theologians, among them Henry Ware, Theodore Parker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, UU’s bring to Reason their American sensibilities, namely, freedom and democracy. It has been this contagious spirit of liberty that has allowed God talk to continue to evolve, in many ways unfettered, in the universities, the pulpit, and the pews. Combined with the rapid and dramatic changes in the world in the past several centuries, in the areas of science, technology, business, and warfare (the first two World Wars taking place in the 20th century) the conversation continues, always rendering more questions.
Book of the Day, Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Essays, Kathleen Rolenz, “Unitarian Universalists need Jesus, too. First of all, we need to connect with our own history. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Jesus. We neglect our own history at our peril. We also must become more comfortable with traditional religious language. We must be able to speak the language of another’s religious tradition without hesitation or fear. we don’t want a marginalized faith on the world’s stage. And finally, I believe we must genuinely embrace the religious diversity of our own church members-including the Christians among us.