Thin Chicken Soup for the Young UU Soul
I've been thinking about the reaction Rev. Phil got to the Family Chalice group's explanation of the message of Unitarianism and Universalism.
And I've found a few less-than-favorable responses on the web to my posting of the Family Chalice group's explication of that essential message:
• You are loved in this world (the simple message of Universalism) and
• You are good (the simple message of Unitarianism).
Here's what people are saying: One blogger agrees that "Our children should know these things. Our adults should know them." However, "Watering it down to 'you are loved and you are good' is thin soup, indeed." Another commented that "I’m not a fan of watering down religious theology and tradition just to make it 'easy.' Those two statements utterly fail, in my opinion, to capture the heart and soul of either tradition."
I rather think the simplicity of the combination of You are loved and You are good is its genius.
I think the reduction of Unitarianism to just a kind of Arminianism is a little frustrating, but acceptable. I would want to complicate it a little and say "You can be good, but you must live and feel and think and experience the world to figure out what it means to be good," in an attempt to give a little transcendentalist/Parker/Channing flavor to it.
In thinking developmentally, I suspect the more simple formulation is more appropriate. How does one build an understanding of something rather abstract (even for adults) for children?
Constructivist learning theory (via Vygotsky among others) suggests that all new learning is based upon the structure of all prior knowledge that is successfully activated by the learner (there is some tentative indirect evidence from brain research that there is something to this).
Many theories of early childhood development (though I will work loosely from Erikson's stages of development) suggest that the earliest developmental task is to develop a sense of a contingent universe. Infants are apparently not born with "object permanency." They do not know if people or objects persist outside of their perception.
Children learn this permanency from the consistent care of their family environment. Parents and other care givers consistently return to the infant’s environment and provide love and nurturing. Erikson calls this stage Trust vs. Mistrust. Children learn to have some trust in their needs being met and in the constancy of their family’s love.
The absolute connection to this notion “You are loved” should be clear.
As the child develops, an awareness develops that the world (at this point mostly the family environment) responds to the child’s actions. Crying or otherwise communicating will generally bring someone to help. The ability to move and manipulate objects develops. To borrow a classic example from Piaget, the toddler learns that a ball rolled under the sofa still exists even when unable to see it. The child starts to develop a sense of autonomy. (Erikson calls the 3 developmental stages after infancy: Autonomy vs. Shame, Initiative vs. Guilt and Industry vs. Inferiority, though I would like to avoid the Freudian baggage of these constructs).
Each of these stages involves the development of a sense of one’s self as an actor in the world with the ability to have an effect. While the idea “You are good” might be intended to suggest “You are good” regardless of what you do, I prefer to suggest that one has the ability to be good (or to be perfectable if we want to go to the Arminian core of this notion).
In this light, the simple formulation of “You are loved” and “You are good” may be a brilliant developmentally appropriate scaffold for the abstract principles (not Principles) that define our faith tradition. Certainly it is over simplified for adults (or rather it may be a necessary first step but certainly not a sufficient formulation for a mature understanding of the U and U traditions). Sometimes “thin soup” is exactly what the body needs.