Ought a theological center be the goal?

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Of all the angst-ridden group processes Unitarian Universalists have endured in recent years, none has promised so much and produced so little as the quest to find a "theological center."

I think that quest asked too much. I was much heartened to read what the Rev. John H. Thomas, the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ had to say on the matter. He spoke at the Potomac Association meeting on Saturday, on which was piggy-backed one of four UCC polity and history institutes I need as a part of my transition to the UCC. One of his addresses was in the required reading, and he graciously sat in for the first forty minutes of the class and answered questions. (That pilot program is extraordinary for any number of reasons. See more.)

Now, there are differences between the UUA and the UCC. The UCC is a confessional, rather than credal, body and even the basis of this confession enshrined in the Basis of Union and Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ has lots of wiggle room. For instance, the Preamble says the UCC looks to

Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world. It claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. It affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.

Thomas repeated to the class -- he's clearly said this before -- that while these documents speak of the creeds, confessions and reformers they don't say which creeds, which confessions or which reformers. The field of UCC theology has field-goals, but there is some disagreement where they are placed. The same can be said for the UUA, even if the field covers different ground. So I think Thomas has something to say to Unitarian Universalists.

In his 2001, he delivered a paper "A Theological Heart: Confessional Commitment in the United Church of Christ Reflection on the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ" to west coast chapters of the Confessing Christ organization. In it, he wrote

[L]et me first say a word about language. You'll notice that I have chosen to use the phrase, "theological heart" rather than "theological center." I do this, recognizing that Confessing Christ has tried over the years to explore the concept of a theological center for the United Church of Christ. In many ways this has been a helpful and constructive effort and I am grateful to many of you for seeking to engage the church in one of its core responsibilities. In the hyper-sensitive, highly suspicious ecclesial environment in which we live, however, center language almost inevitably suggests a spatial image and raises for some—fairly or unfairly—the specter of hegemonic control by some over against others. Center implies for many a contrast with periphery or margin, and to historical and contemporary struggles over ecclesiastical power and privilege. This is a particularly sensitive issue in a denomination like the United Church of Christ, where we are less inclined to ask, "which theological voice is normative?" than "which theological voice or voices have been silenced or ignored?"

He has more to say, and the paper is worth a read.

"A Theological Heart" (UCC.org)

4 Replies to “Ought a theological center be the goal?”

  1. I was deeply impressed with what he said. This is a man who doesn’t just use theological lingo, but actually knows theology and speaks with insight and understanding.

    The readings and the discussion did help to lay to rest (for me, at least) any concept of UCC = Unitarians Considering Christ. Certainly many members of the UCC may self-identify with that phrase, but as a church and a faith community, Christ is not “considered,” simply a subject of idle reflection.

  2. -I had never thought about the power issue before, but it strikes me as very important. Every now and then I’ve wondered if we in the UUA would have been better off (and more honest) by stating that we have no theological center. Would we be more honest in saying that we as an Association are simply an interfaith federation of independent churches, connected in many ways by history, but not by theology (with common theology being something worked out locally as each church’s covenant allows)?

    But if we admit this, then we need to reconsider many issues of Association government, function, and purpose. On going efforts to centralize identity, mission, voice, and outreach via the Beacon Street office would need to be abandoned. More efforts would need to be placed into grass roots congregational services, and voluntary associations that uphold the missions of our various independent churches.

  3. For me, the issue is neither a “center” nor a “heart”. The issue is “identity”. What will be the identity and the distinctive personality for the result of the merging of the classical Unitarian and Universalist religious traditions in the religious landscape of the 21st century? An interfaith movement with syncretistic worship and no personality of its own? A liberal Christian church that welcomes non-Christians without requiring conversion? Or the possibility of overcoming old-fashioned, reactive religions of the past to foster a renewed spirituality valid and meaningful for post-industrial, post-postmodern societies? Those are the questions that we need to answer, and we will need to do it globally: national churches will be even more obsolete than nations themselves in the coming global society.

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