Sunday, August 23, 2009

Of themes and theology

Some themes in our lives will never go away until they're addressed- and this principle applies as much to organizations as individuals. Without anyone trying to guide the discussions, these themes will surface on their own, as Doug Muder noted in his UU World article, Message or culture? "Every year, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly takes on some unannounced theme. Or at least I think it does. Maybe it’s just my mind’s unconscious habit of imposing order on the buzzing, blooming confusion of it all. But each year the talks I go to, the people I run into, the random blips of conversation I overhear all seem to point to some idea or issue or question that I didn’t think I was thinking about when I got there.
This year, it all seemed to point to this: At its core, what is Unitarian Universalism really about? Do we have a message we are trying to bring to the world? Or do we have a culture we are trying to preserve against extinction?"
These questions are asked by Davidson Loehr's Why ‘Unitarian Universalism’ is Dying , which despite being five years old was invoked this week by Plastic Manzikert and Chalice Circle Other blogs have recently touched on similar, some more, some less directly. Like GA, the blogosphere also takes on themes, and it's hardly surprising if it's the same one.

The reason this question, also sometimes stated as "Is there a UU theology?", keeps recurring is because there has not been, to date, any answer. Or, there have been a thousand answers- one was presented in "UU University" at GA- and that's not much help; as Harry Nilsson noted, "A point in every direction is as good as having no point at all." The reason it is so difficult to develop a UU theology is that it must fit within our proud claim of being a creedless religion, a religion based on reason. We can have values, we can have principles, but we cannot have creeds.

But this claim is nonsense; it is not possible. One cannot have values without creeds, because values are not facts, they are subjective judgments that can be asserted but not proven. You can do without gods if you must, but you cannot do without beliefs. Reason, rationality, and logical syllogisms all start with a premise... and when you're dealing with the human equation, those premises are beliefs. Even the simplest "greatest good" argument stems from the belief that a great many people you don't even know being happy is "better" somehow than just you personally being happy. Try proving that to someone who doesn't already believe it. You cannot form values without beliefs; how, then, can you have shared values without shared beliefs? How, then, can you claim to be creedless if you claim shared values?

Now, regular readers will know I'm not a big fan of Rev Loehr, but he did capture this central problem. "It was time to ask hard religious questions, like ” What’s worth believing?’ ” Are there profound truths about life that make demands on people of character whether we like it or not?’ ” What beliefs can be used to fashion admirable people?” and so on. In a sentence, the question was “Are there deep and abiding truths capable of sustaining honest spiritual quests without supernatural underpinnings?"... The lack of anything worth believing was a religious crisis, which should have called for religious solutions. The mid-20th century was a time for religious liberals to claim the tradition of liberal religion – a tradition that can be traced in broad strokes back 2500 years – and educate themselves to be its new voice. It was a time to seek the legitimate heir to the form of liberal religion their parents and grandparents had inherited.
But none of this happened..."

It's easy to see why none of this happened; creeds and beliefs are things those awful fundamentalists have, so we weren't having any! Like many of the current crop of religious critics, we had fallen for the classic fallacy: we let them define our terms. For religious conservatives, the word "belief" is a prefix for "in God", and the word "God" means "the God of Abraham, as modified by John to be a triune being". Accepting their definitions, a majority of UUs figured that since they didn't buy someone who was both fully human and fully divine, and damned people for eternity, there were no gods. Since they didn't have gods, by the definition they accepted they didn't have beliefs. No beliefs, obviously no creeds. (besides, weren't creeds those things that got people burned at the stake?) We claimed to be a creedless religion. But since a creedless religion- or indeed any creedless organization- is impossible, (even a flash mob has a creed-"this is worth doing"), we were trying to live a paradox. No wonder we never developed a UU theology, despite having five decades to work on it- Hell, we haven't even come up with a decent elevator speech!

I think we should undertake the quest described by Davidson Loehr above. Not because Unitarian Universalism is dying; it isn't. As I wrote back in April, UU is a niche product ; there will always be a market for us. No, we should do it because it would be the intellectually honest thing to do. We should do it because it is a worthwhile project that would benefit all humankind- indeed, it may be the greatest service we are capable of rendering. We should do it because we are uniquely suited to the task- "because I'm the only one who can" is too noble a reason to be left only to comic book superheroes. And lastly, we should do it because it would give shape and direction to Unitarian Universalism. Yes, the UUA will continue regardless- mere inertia and endowments will see to that- but this will provide a reason for continuing.

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