Friday, February 25, 2005


I had a fairly painful UU conversation yesterday. A friend was really struggling with the notion that Unitarian Universalism was a Christian religion. It was his contention that he would not be UU if it were explicitly identified as Christian (or perhaps even post-Christian if post-Christian did not mean non-Christian).

I don't consider myself a Christian or a theist. I have made that clear in this space before. But I don't feel the need to flee if folks are honest about our Christian heritage. I will admit that like my friend I would not have become a UU if it was explicitly identified as Christian at the time. But as members and especially as seminarians I think we have to get past that. By all means, we don't have to be Christians but we have to get past being reactionary about Christianity. (I would generally substitute atheists and Pagans for Christians too.)

Christian antisemitism was part of my friend's issue with our collective relationship with Christianity. We were both in a class studying the gospel of Matthew and the topic of Christian supercessionism (an attempt by many Christians to distance Christianity from its Jewish roots and to treat Christianity as the new and improved replacment for Judaism).

UU seminarians generally agree that Christian supercessionism is a bad thing. The question I have been trying to explore is the extent to which people like me tend to do the same thing to Christianity, with a new sort of "logical positivist" supercessionism. (My first choices were humanist, rationalist or atheist supercessionism. But I think "logical positivism" is closer to the point)
To what extent does the critique of supecessionism apply?


At 3:54 AM, Blogger fausto said...

It applies very well. If you read the original Humanist Manifesto, they pretty much come right out and call themselves supercessionists, and UUs have been inclined to believe it ever since. But it's a flawed idea for the same reasons that Christian supercessionism is flawed.

All the great 19th-century Unitarians, Universalists and Transcendentalists spoke in Christian terms and defined themselves with reference to Christianity, even when it was to dissent from Christian ideas. Christianity is our underlying frame of reference. It is not a refuge from which we never emerge, but rather the base camp from which we stage our expeditions of discovery. It is the soil from which UUism sprang and in which we are still rooted. Our branches may reach far into the sky and the wind, but if we are cut off from our living roots we are a dead tree.

UUism has not superseded Christianity, but rather, is a dissenting manifestation of Christianity. It is not a superior and antithetical revelation, but an authentic expression of the Protestant principle of personal discernment of Truth, carried to the ultimate extreme.

Your friend may indeed have a problem with Christian antisemitism, or many other aspects of Christianity practiced badly. Loads of UUs do. Here in the Boston area our churches are filled with embittered ex-Catholics, the hardest cases for whom the more orthodox Episcopalians were unable to supply the salve. These are wounds that need healing, and I for one don't think UUism does enough to heal them rather than merely providing a safe place to express pain.

However, the wounds are not healed by imagining UUism to be something other than what it is. That approach only answers one injury with another.

At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Ami said...

Christian supercessionism of Judaism is bad, but is all supercessionism bad? Remember, over 95% of all serial killers eat bread. But the problem with serial killers is not their eating of bread.

So, what specifically is wrong with Christian supercessionism of Judaism? In principle, it doesn't bother me much what Christians, or anyone else, think of me. The problem is that Christians believe that they must convert everyone to Christianity, and, more specifically, with the means they use for the conversion. To wit, they use any means that are acceptable at the time, which in the past included physical force, and at present includes massive propaganda compaigns. By believing in supercessionism, they believe that Jews, as well as everyone else, must be converted, through these unsavory means if need be. Thus, my problem with Christian supercessionism is not their private belief, but that the belief means that I fall under their sword.

It is not the abstract belief that is a problem, but the practical implementation of that belief.

At 7:00 AM, Blogger fausto said...

But UU or Humanist or Logical Positivist supercession of Christianity is just as bad -- at least if we're honest about believing in the individual conscience and reason as the ultimate spiritual authority. The only way to assert the inherent general superiority of one comprehensive belief system over another is to deny the authority of individual discernment in choosing what to believe. To put it as starkly as possible, you can be a supercessionist and a Humanist, but you cannot be a supercessionist and a UU Humanist without also being a hypocrite.

UUism is neither non-Christian nor better-than-Christian; it's Christian-and-more.

At 6:24 AM, Anonymous Jeff Wilson said...

I'm working on a Ph.D. in Religious Studies; my discipline is American Religious History. Religious liberals are a major part of my research, and my dissertation will primarily be about 19th and 20th century Unitarianism. So the issue of how to define or catagorize UUs is one I've give some considerable thought. This isn't meant to privilige my conclusions over anyone else's, just to provide context for my remarks.

I've concluded that contemporary UUism is a post-Christian religion (it can also be stated as non-Christian), but also that it is a Protestant denomination. Perhaps that sounds odd or even impossible to some people. But here is my justification. Looked at theologically, UUism is clearly not Christian, but it also shows clear traces of having come from a Christian background originally (thus, non-Christian, post-Christian). Looked at socially and ritually, it is clearly Protestant in organizational polity, modes and norms of expression and worship, predominant architecture, clerical and lay activities and relationships, life cycle and annual and weekly observances, orientation toward society and politics, internal compartmentalization of functions, and conceptual approach to everything from the place of the individual in religion to underlying moral standards. Put another way, UUism is non-Christian in theology, but Protestant in culture.

I haven't pinpointed a specific moment when UUism became non-Christian. For expediency's sake, I tend to think of Unitarianism and Universalism as having been Protestant Christian denominations (which spawned many non-Christian movements), but Unitarian-Universalism as having been from the start a non-Christian but still Protestant denomination. I'll eventually put the legwork into reading the sources and grappling with theory necessary to formulate a more nuanced position. But I can already anticipate one possible future thesis: Unitarian-Universalism did not become non-Christian as a whole denomination at a uniform rate, but rather certain sectors (perhaps geographically determined or by age of church) divested themselves of a specifically Christian identity at differing rates.

At 7:21 AM, Blogger fausto said...

Jeff, I see your point, but I think you need to be more careful to spell out how you define "Unitarian-Universalism", and to a lesser extent, also "Protsetant".

If UUism is not a top-down institution but a bottom-up loose confederation of autonomous and independent congregations, then some of those congregations, and individual memebers of other congregations, do indeed remain Christian. Christianity has not been completely abandoned by UUism, at least not yet, and lately it even seems to be making a bit of a comeback.

If UUism is a non-creedal movement devoted to the personal search for spiritual understanding, with personal conscience and reason rather than the Church or other mediating hierarchies being the individual's ultimate authority in determining spiritual Truth, then it stands in a direct line of theological descent from Martin Luther, and the whims and biases of the institutional leadership count for nothing. Theologically as well as culturally, it is not only Protestant but hyper-Protestant.

If UUism is a top-down institution, I would agree that Christianity no longer seems to be the primary emphasis of the institutional leadership, nor of a majority of its member congregations.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger jfield said...

Jeff and Fausto: I have some suspicions about when the Unitarians became "post-Christian", although one would have to balance between transcendalism and the incorporation of the Free Religion folks.

I wonder about the Universalists. I suspect that the case could be made that they stayed fully Christian all the way until consolidation. I bet Scott Wells has an opinion about this...

At 3:18 PM, Anonymous Jeff Wilson said...

Fausto, I'm careful to talk about UUism as a denomination, not as a movement or a spiritual search. By that I mean the totality of churches affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, considered in terms of what they commonly share amongst one another. As a mass, UU churches are no longer Christian, though a minority do remain explicitly Christian. Virtually all UU churches are informed by the Protestant religio-cultural phenomena I listed in the second paragraph of my previous post, though the exact mix in any given congregation varies widely along a spectrum. I would echo your comment that in some ways UUs are hyper-Protestants.

Definitions and boundaries are always drawn from a particular positioning to serve a particular purpose, and other definitions and boundaries may be equally legitimate for other perspectives or agendas. Furthermore, definitions suited to illuminate the work of one avenue of inquery always obscure other potential avenues. For my work, which is related to the specific field of American Religious History, approaching these questions denominationally is the best way to interface with the work of other scholars in my field.

Jfield, I study Transcendentalism and the Free Religious Association as Unitarian heresies, which is to say, they were alternate Unitarianisms that fall within the purview of a scholar of Unitarianism (broadly conceived) such as myself. Note here that I'm not defining Transcendentalism or the FRA denominationally, as I did with UUism; they differed in some significant ways from how UUism is organized and conceived, making such a comparison apples and oranges. And once again, defining them as Unitarian heresies (a word I do not use pejoratively) illuminates certain things for me as a historian, and possibly obscures other valid observations that someone else could make.

At 6:37 AM, Anonymous Philocrites said...

Jeff, I need to remember to send you a long but not quite complete paper I wrote comparing the institutional dynamics of the Free Religionists to the later religious humanists. I've never posted it online because, unfortunately, it's overly dependent on secondary sources and its thesis would require a lot more primary source work to be useful. But it sounds like I was looking at some very similar terrain.

I would say that the Unitarian denomination did not begin to grapple with the thought of having become post-Christian until the early 1940s — which may seem rather late, but it wasn't until this point that the general direction of liberal and modernist Protestantism beyond Unitarianism's borders took a very different turn and Unitarians began seeing themselves as fairly alone. Until then, many Unitarians assumed that much of "enlightened" Christianity was following more or less right behind them. Humanism didn't cause this shift, but it gave Unitarians a name for the position that they had gradually come to hold.

On this and many other subjects, sadly, I confess to being poorly informed about the Universalists.

At 9:24 AM, Blogger Jess said...

Lots of food for thought here, that's for sure! Thanks, jfield, for your link and for clueing me in on a great discussion!

Perhaps it's only an issue of semantics, but I don't see UUism as so much "post-Christian" as "evolved-Christian." The central message of Christianity is not all that different from our 7 principles - it's the trappings of the modern Christian movement that most of us have trouble with. As Ami said, it's the methods of conversion, and the assumptions that one must believe one true way in order to be saved.

An over-simplification: our Universalist message is that we're all saved in one way or another, and our Unitarian message is that all forms of God are one and the same. As a movement, instead of narrowing our definitions to leave people on the outside, we have broadened them to be more inclusive. We see God/Divinity/Spirit/etc in more forms and more places, while affirming that one interdependent web binds us all.

This may seem like an idealistic reading of modern UUism, but it's all there on paper. That dichotomy is what gets me so frustrated with the anti-religion anti-Christianity movement that I see increasingly among our seminarians and in congregations. One church I've been to recently will not acknowledge the word "Worship" in conjunction with Sunday services... ???


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