Our Old Unitarian Argument
May 23, 2021
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Unitarianism in this country began as an argument within the liberal Christianity of its day. It began as a response against certain theological doctrines. From those first arguments, on through to today, there has been a steady, albeit sometimes unnoticed, series of arguments at play among us. Our old Unitarian argument is still part of our identity and shows up not just in our history but in our present experience as a faith tradition today.
That first old argument – the opening salvo – I am referring to is revealed wonderfully in William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of 1819 entitled “Unitarian Christianity.” It was our opening shot. In it, Channing made the argument that the Character of God is good: meaning God is not angry or vengeful or jealous, as some of the orthodox theologies would have it. God is Good. Next, Channing said God is one. God is a unity, not a trinity. Following from that he argued that Jesus was not God, that Jesus was likewise a unity, namely fully human. And the final big argument Channing made was that humanity has the capacity to be good, that we can follow the example of Jesus. Again, this was counter to the prevailing orthodoxy of the day that said humanity cannot be good without first being saved by God through Jesus.
I am breezing through the actual arguments because – and here is the best part – we did not say such doctrines were the creeds of a Unitarian faith to which all Unitarians must adhere. We instead choose to be non-creedal. In effect, what we did was establish a house in which our faith community could exist, but we did not put a lock on the door. We said anyone can join in our community if you agree with us in principle. You don’t need to believe the exact doctrines we’ve just declared; you don’t need that key to unlock the door to our community.
Pretty soon after Channing’s arguments were aired and Unitarian churches were established, there began to be a group of Deists showing up. And an argument began: Was God actively involved in the lives of the people? The Deists said no. Channing and the other Unitarian Christians said yes. But rather than kicking the Deists out, they all found a way to share the space. There was, after all, no creed saying the Deists could not be part of Unitarianism. So, we expanded our circle and kept going.
Next the Transcendentalists showed up. They found the door unlocked and moved in. And an argument began. Is the Bible the only valid revelation of God? The Transcendentalists like Emerson and Alcott, Thoreau and Fuller, argued it was not; while the Deists and the original Unitarian Christians argued that it was. But rather than kicking the Transcendentalists out, the Unitarians instead recognized that there was no creedal lock on the door. And we expanded the circle and kept going.
This became our pattern. Throughout our history, we’ve had significant theological arguments against the culture and theology around us and against cultures and theologies among ourselves. Yet our history is about how we stayed together through these arguments rather than the more common religious history pattern of splitting into factions and sects.
Today we Unitarian Universalists are at the point that our inclusivity is a bright beacon to the world and all those hungering for an open community grounded in values of truth and respect, personal integrity and communal support. We are not grounded in a creed or set belief as our center. As Rosemary Bray McNatt said in our reading this morning,
Whether you revere God, Goddess, nature, the human spirit, or something holy that you have no name for, you are welcome to join any Unitarian Universalist community and to worship, study, work, and be in relationship with people who are all on their own spiritual paths. (From “Our Faith” essay in UU Pocket Guide, 2012 edition)
But it is worth noting we have not arrived at this stance of openness by chance, nor have we been in this exact spot all along. Ours is an evolving dynamic faith history. And I suggest, we are not done.
My colleague Rev. Craig Schwalenberg shared this insight with me when we were talking about it yesterday. He said this pattern of argument and expansion in our history found in our beginnings, has subsequently reappeared roughly every few generations. This pattern did not stop with the Deists and the Transcendentalists of the early and mid-1800’s. Every few generations, a new group would show up among the Unitarians, find the door unlocked and move in. ‘Nice place you got here,’ they would say. ‘But you don’t fit in here,’ the response would come. And an argument would ensue.
And every few generations, this argument would rage through our churches and congregations, our fellowships and societies and meeting houses. And for a time, people would draw lines in the sand, churches would get into fights, ministers would loss their jobs, some people would get hurt. These conflicts were real. It was hard. But in the end, our history shows that we would eventually find our way to expand the circle and keep going.
That first old argument was about the nature of God and of Jesus. It was also about what it means to be human. As the years have worn on and the generations have come and gone – our arguments have continued. We’ve argued about the centrality of Christianity in our identity, about the relationship of science in our beliefs, about the importance of activism in our deeds. In early 1900’s we had a good, long argument about whether or not we even needed God in our theology at all. The Humanists pressed the question. They showed up among our Unitarian communities, found the door unlocked and moved in. And after some acrimony and struggle, we again expanded our circle and kept going.
It was a far more formal process when the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961 – but in many ways the pattern holds true for the outcome. The Universalists declared God was too good to damn humanity for eternity and the Unitarians countered that humanity was too good to be damned. (Credit to Thomas Starr King, who said this more eloquently). But still we found our way to expand the circle and keep going. I have intentionally been talking about just the Unitarians in this fun romp through our history. The Universalists had different patterns echoing along the ages, but that is a sermon for another day. Today I am lifting out the pattern within our American Unitarian history of argument and expansion. Because today I want to notice we are in the midst of that exact pattern now.
But I’m running ahead a bit. Let me finish the survey and then I’ll jump off this last ledge with you. It matters because the really exciting argument was next in our chronology. In the late 70’s and early 80’s we had a big argument brought to us by the pagans and supporters of feminist theologies. I call it exciting because something in the pattern seems to have shifted. The argument brought to us by the pagans and feminists suggested, among other thigs, that the Earth itself is holy, that we are more interconnected and relational than independent and isolated, and also the perspective that our journey is more a spiral dance than a climb onward and upward forever.
Interestingly, this argument fits the pattern at first. The pagans and feminists showed up, found the door unlocked and moved in. ‘Nice place you got here,’ they said. ‘But you don’t fit in here,’ the response came. And an argument ensued. We eventually expanded the circle and kept going. But here is the part that is different. In the past, whenever a new group or theological cohort would come into the fold, and the circle expanded to include them, a strange thing would happen. The group that was finally received would turn around and shut the door. Then when the next group would arrive, the most recent addition would lend the loudest complaints about the infiltration of the new trouble-makers in our midst!
When the Transcendentalists showed up, it was the Deists and Theists rallying against them. When the Humanist showed up, the Transcendentalists joined the hue and cry against them. When the Pagans came knocking, the Humanists were among the loudest to say that Paganism went going too far. This is not to say any of these theological groups were then or are now hypocritical by nature. No. It is simply the pattern of group dynamics we fell into over the years. I mention this part not to denigrate any theological perspective. I mention it to show that we all fall into the patterns at times and it is hard work to shake ourselves free.
And here, now is the interesting bit: the earth-centered traditions … the pagans and the feminist theologies … did not shut the door behind them once the circle was expanded and they were firmly recognized among us. Part of the perspective they brought was this exact shift in recognizing how to keep the circle open for the next people who may need to be let in. I thank God for those feminists and pagans from fifty years ago, for the influence their theology and perspective has had on me and on our faith history.
All of which leads me to our current situation. Unitarian Universalism has been overdue for a theological argument. If you have been paying attention to the themes and scuffles in the broader Unitarian Universalist movement – I won’t assume any of you have – then you may be pondering this exact question. What theological argument is going on now?
About 15 or 20 years ago there was the beginnings of a good theological argument among us. We were talking about the Language of Reverence a lot. People were lining up for and against the use of particular words in our churches such as church, God, prayer, and worship. It had the feel of the pattern. Almost. There was not a group or cohort in particular championing this argument against the current establishment within Unitarian Universalism. It was just some of us arguing with some of us. Plus, the argument eventually faded away without resulting in increased inclusion or notable exclusion in our circle. And it never quite reached the level of people getting hurt or losing their jobs or feeling like they were getting excommunicated – all of which does tend to happen when the conflicts get significant among us.
When I back into the question I find an interesting possibility. When I ask what theological dispute is brewing among us, I don’t notice anything happening nowadays that has folks concerned. When I ask instead, what is going on now that has some UUs getting hurt, losing their ministry and field work jobs, or feeling like they are getting excommunicated? Well, that question cracks open some possibilities. Almost.
The answer to who is getting hurt in UUism by UUs today is people of color, trans people, and some other similarly marginalized identities among us. Today in Unitarian Universalism there is a heated argument unfolding about anti-racism and multiculturalism as well as about how welcoming or unwelcoming we are to transgender and gender queer people, particularly leaders among us. The thing is: that’s not a theological perspective. So, this almost fits the pattern, enough to make me very curious.
I will pause here and say: I am “all in” for being inclusive and supportive of folks on the margins in our faith. I say this not to virtue-signal or toe a party-line, but to acknowledge that there are somethings we ought not, we cannot, be neutral about.
That said, let me pull your attention back to the broader topic at hand. This is an argument happening among us as Unitarian Universalists, but is it a theological argument? Might we be looking at another old unfolding of the doctrines around human nature – who is worthy, who is included, who counts? Is this culture war around identity and racism rooted in some old ideas of human nature that we are being called upon to refute once more? Maybe. I might just be fishing here. And I wonder if the argument is about plurality and multiculturalism is a stand in for the old argument about the saved and unsaved, good people vs second-rate people.
Thankfully, I can tell you how this argument will eventually turn out. One way or another, we will eventually find our way to the other side of this and discover our circle again expanded and we will have grown as a faith tradition.
Until then, I encourage us all to be mindful of how we can have arguments and conflict in ways that are healthy. I encourage us to step closer to the troubles we notice; to allow the differences and disagreements to be present but not harmful. And in so doing, may we remember we are not just talking about interesting ideas and theological positions; we are talking about people. May we proceed with grace and may we engage our differences openly and respectfully – for that is what our faith calls of us in times like these.
In a world without end,
may it be so