Would being many be harder than being one?

David Soliday asks in a comment at this entry to expound on my thoughts.


I really believe that Unitarianism and Universalism were re-tooled in the years after the Second World War, and leading towards consolidation in 1961, to be a joint theological “other” from what had existed before. Some examples. In those early years, the Unitarian fellowship movement, heavily tinctured by materialistic humanism, got started; the Universalist General Convention was denied membership in the National Council of Churches for being insuffiently Christian (and thus leaving only one natural source for fellowship, the Unitarians); the Massachusetts Universalist Convention spawned the hell-beast known as the Charles Street Meeting House, as a field lab for a rather heady, if lyric, form of syncritism; and ministerial exchanges between the Unitarians and Universalists sealed the deal.

Its a shame nobody told the Christians, who have been acting as a rump parliament in both traditions ever since. (The organization which became the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship also dates to that period. I’ve noticed it is among the Christians that you are more than usually likely to find a “Unitarian” or a “Universalist” and not the double moniker.)

Donald Harrington’s 1960 General Assembly sermon, Unitarian Universalism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrowwe had a new theology, but didn’t really tell us how we got there, except perhaps by de-emphasizing Christianity as past and passe. We did get a new identity, that is, Unitarian Universalism qua sect, and a rather triumphal (“America’s fourth religion”) and gnostic (“Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?”) at that. It would be inconceivable to think that one of our own would be invited as an ecumenical delegate to a hypothetical Vatican III, but James Luther Adams was there for Vatican II. (Of course, Rome has moved too.) We’re not in the American consciousness, and it isn’t exactly because we were pushed off the map. We jumped.

I might believe that syncritism, as Unitarian Universalism has made it, and as I dub it “world-religionism,” might work if the self-congratulating, distant, and (at times, the worst ones to be sure) xenophobic sectarianism we’ve inherited didn’t really say that we’re not serious about a theological interface from many sides.

First, it is because we have nothing like peace about God, and without God, any serious engagement with monotheism or polytheism is moot. (How many times have you heard Buddhism lauded and defended because it isn’t theist?)

Second, I believe that to understand other languages you need a deep understanding of one with which to have a point of reference, and “garden variety Unitarian Universalism” (my term) doesn’t allow that depth to take place.

Third, we are wed to the priviledge of class (that is, middle posing as upper) embolded by education, and overfed self-praise, and that makes it almost impossible to exhort anyone to do anything. Have you noticed that Unitarian Universalistm, for a group that’s putatively interfaith, is indifferent to theological developments outside its own borders, and has no institutional will to cultivate spiritual disciplines among the rank-and-file?

I’m not sure what the best option for a future for Unitarian Universalism is, but I don’t think our present trajectory is viable. I am in this dialogue to develop a set of solutions when the ears are ready to hear.

There are many reasons I became a Christian — I wasn’t one when I entered Unitarian Universalism — but high on the list was spiritual self-preservation. Without an “other” to reach for, and lean on — that is, God, Jesus Christ, and the Church Universal — I would have been adrift, and out the door.

Strange hymn fact

I was in church today, but not preaching. That duty fell upon one of the deacons, Richard Hurst, who delivered a well-crafted sermon on anger, divine anger in particular.

But what will stick with me for the next seven days — a question asked Mystery Worshippers at Ship of Fools — is learning that the first verse of the morning’s first hymn, “O God of Earth and Altar” (sung to King’s Lynn) was incorporated into an Iron Maiden song, “Revelations” from the album Piece of Mind to be exact: [full lyrics]

Who knew?

Lawrence, deacon and martyr

St. Lawrence, martyred this day in 258, is one of my favorites from the early church. Of course, I first learned of him from the two-degrees-removed association that is St. Lawrence University, the former Universalist college (and seminary.)

Much of what we know of him is legendary. Suffice it to say that he was in charge of the church’s treasury, which the civil authorities demanded. Lawrence assembled poor Christians and presented them, “These are the treasures of the church.”

Yes, that’s enough to get you martyred. First he was beaten, and then (I hope the story is an act of pious fiction) he was roasted alive on a gridiron, with his famous “turn me over; I’m done on this side” quip.

When I was in Rome in June, I took these pictures.

martyrdom sitecloisterstatue

Left to right: (1) the traditional site of his martyrdom, in the Roman Forum; (2) the lovely cloister of the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, my favorite of the patriarchal basilicas, St. Peter’s included; (3) a statue of the saint (with his gridiron) atop a column, outside the basilica.

You can see a 360 degree image of the interior of the basilica, constructed over the catacombs where his remains were taken, here.

Not lectionary, but calendar?

Chutney makes clear what Chutney (I’d use a pronoun, but I don’t know what gender the writer is) is missing, and that doesn’t jerk my chain so much.

If I were making a thematic calendar with readings — with an overlay “sanctorial” calendar of the “saints” and major anniversaries — I’d start with the procession of the seasons.

After all, the Christian calendar is based on the Jewish calendar, and it has agricultural roots. Seems a good place to start, and then attribute values to the seasons. Values which speak to the particular congregation, if not the UUA in general.

And if a person was going to start compling useful liturgical material, why not go to the prayers of James Martineau? He understood the seasons better than most.

Lectionaries redux


Chutney gives me my first chance to test out the TrackBack, which itself was activated at Chutney’s general request to godbloggers.

I guess the appeal to a Unitarian Universalist lectionary jerks my chain in three distinct ways.

1. To quote a zillion TV law dramas, “it assumes facts not in evidence,” namely, a theological core. The Principles and Purposes have moved from being a census of competing factions within Unitarian Universalism to canonizing a self-selecting, materialistic atheist or wide theist, world religion-ism as Unitarian Universalism. No, you can guess, I don’t like that.

Why? Because this canonization puts an onus on those who have a particular theology, as if one is supposed to have a “theology in general.”

So I have a hard time with anything that gives that interpretation of Unitarian Universalism any more institutional heft.

2. The Revised Common Lectionary and its kin are attempts to unify Christians through a common approach to the word. Intended for a U.S. constituency, it has been wildly and widely adopted world wide. (It should be noted that two Unitarian Universalist ministers sit on the committee, the Consulation on Common Texts that devised the RCL.)

Anything particular and sectarian — the Scylla and Charybdis of Unitarian Universalism, but we’re not alone in its trap — just shows how out of the loop we are.

Why draw together a resource to prove it?

3. Of course, alternate lectionaries, liturgies, anything are marketed as sexy, hot, innovative.

Like parachute pants.

I’ll stick to the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Oremus lectionary off-Sundays.

But, even if such a UU lectionary was to come into being, I don’t think I would write off “Direct experiences of mystery and wonder” or conflate it with world religions.

Mystical experience is often at conflict with the same institutional manifestations of religion that produces the scriptures that those world religions would use. But mystics — I suppose out of compassion, or a need to reflect on the experience — do sometimes reduce their experiences to writing.

And then there’s the nature writing, which often points a sub-mystical experience of God, but is as direct as any experience. Many would be tempted to attribute this to “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered religions” but what if the writer is theologically elsewhere.

Indeed, the works of George deBenneville, who would have turned 300 last July 26, fits nicely here.

What did Micah mean?

Now that the Bishop-elect Robinson matter has been resolved, is it too much to consider an almost unrecognized matter that concerns a gay man, the will of God, the Episcopal Church, and the current General Convention?

Louie Crew, a well known gay advocate in the Episcopal Church, and a lay delegate from the diocese of Newark, has proposed an amendment to the catechism in their prayer-book, “to quote Micah 6:8 correctly.” He’s right in saying the current text, “to love justice, to do mercy, and to walk humbly with their God” is a bit thin.

He opines: “It is much easier to love justice than to do it. It is much easier to be merciful than to love mercy. We should set for ourselves the high standard that Micah articulates.” And so the amended catechism would read, if adopted, “do justice, to love mercy . . . .”

[The full text of the resolution.]

What do you think? And I wonder if it will pass? Or even be brought forward for consideration?

Trinity I: Roll call

Another adapted bit of writing to UUMA-CHAT, this time on the historic presence of Trinitarians within Universalism:

As early as 1830, you can read embarrassment that there are or might be Trinitarians in the Universalist ministerial college, presumably by those who don’t want any. Thomas Whittemore, as an appendix to his Modern History of Universalism (1830) footnotes a personal and unscientific survey he took of his colleagues on the question, and quotes the letters he received. They can be summed up, “Oh, I think there used to be a Trinitarian over there, but we’ve seem to have misplaced him.”

Since American Universalist has multiple origins, and since there is evidence of Trinitarian Universalist liturgy in common usage, it seems there has never been a time when such a position hasn’t had at least a few proponents. (Can anyone guess when the last Universalist denominationally-printed prayerbook with explicit Trinitarian references came out? 1941, with a special reprint in 1943. Hardly the depths of antiquity.)

A minority, sure. But perhaps one driven into rhetorical isolation for polemic goals.

The goal? First friendship and then consolidation with the Unitarians, of course, which was a hot-and-cold issue until it was consummated four decades back. Ann Lee Bressler (Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880, which I’m glad to see is used at Meadville/Lombard) has a few nice pages about what happens to Universalist history when necessarily viewed through an Unitarian-irenic lens.

This helps explain why everyone gets so tied up about Hosea Ballou being “the first unitarian” — but how many of us can identify, with some detail, the workings of Ballou’s universalist theology at any significant juncture of his career? He was, after all, a Universalist, and not a second-string (or worse) Unitarian, despite those who remember him so.

Baptism I: Me or Us?

As I mentioned in the old “boy in the bands” blog, there’s been a little stir on UUMA-CHAT, but since that’s a confidential list for Unitarian Universalist ministers, I can’t go into detail. But I can share what I posted, with the understanding that any sense of urgency will be misplaced since you are reading this out of context. With that caveat, and with identifying information removed:

One of the reasons I put Blondie on my “Music to Meditate the Trinity By” list (on the [defunct] blog) was their hit, “Atomic.”

One of my biggest beefs (beeves?) with Unitarianism, both as a intradivine system and as an ecclesiological system is that is it consumed with atomistic thinking. Unitarianism, despite its covenantal basis (or perhaps, pretensions) is about “me,” and perhaps “you,” but rarely if ever about “us.” Perhaps, too, that’s why Unitarian historiography has for so long been captive to “great man” theory, or vice verse.

To prove the point: when was the last time you heard Principle 6, “The goal of world community” etc. lifted up?

Universalism is so much about the “us” (qua humanity, church, whatever) that it doesn’t even matter if you’re a Christian for salvation. Universalists are team-players. Christians have remembered Jesus’ high-priestly prayer, “that [we] might be one.” One of the realizations I had that led me down my present theological path is that my beliefs are neither unique nor the center of the universe, epitomized in the phrase “Get over yourself Wells!” God isn’t beholden to me.

When someone is baptized, it isn’t as Presbyterian, Catholic, or Universalist, but as a Christian. (I do wonder and worry if there’s an unsaid fear that we UUs are just playing at religion, and that other people have the real thing, so it is better to stay away.) This is why persons from the various divisions of Christianity have often based their ecumenical work on a common baptism. That’s why it is worth leaning into ecumenical norms in baptism — and then bring the Unitarian or Universalist distinctives to the table.