It seems that one of the debates we have in our denomination is between the theists and the humanists: theists long to express their various perspectives on God through worship, prayer, and praise – and stop with all the shrieking; while humanists want moral and ethical arguments without all the “God talk” that we came to UUism to get away from.

You would think that the theists and the humanists would have long parted ways; in fact, there are some who (if geography allows) choose one UU congregation over another because of its general theological mood. We know congregations that are ‘very humanist’ or ‘rather Christian’ or somewhere in-between. And this can cause some real struggle among parishioners, and even among ministers and seminarians. It seems that either your image of the divine is external, something bigger and greater than yourself, or it is internal, something exactly like yourself.

But what if it’s both? What if we recognize an external Divine that is not only bigger and greater than ourselves but is also made up of ourselves? What if God is, even in part, the collective unconscious, the best of ourselves, greater than the sum of us, intimately involved in our humanity and the entire interconnected web of all existence?

I think the “yes/and” answer is more common among us than we realize. Partly because humanism does not, as John Dietrich points out in “Unitarianism and Humanism,” exclude belief in God. Rather, one can believe in God and still “place faith in man, a knowledge of man, and our duties toward one another.” Yes, Dietrich suggests that humanism shifts religious emphasis from God to humans, but it doesn’t exclude God. Rather, it focuses our attention not just on God but onto the condition of human life “in order that by human effort human life may be improved.” He continues: “[Humanism] is really the same thing as faith in God; for, whatever God may be, it is quite clear that he can manifest himself only through man’s consciousness, and that we shall get more and more knowledge of him only by believing that our highest impulses are his manifestations, tempered by our capacity to receive them.”

Yes, we can be humanists AND theists. In fact, as Unitarian Universalists, even the most theistic among us are humanists.




I learned this week that I am a radical Universalist.

I credit David Bumbaugh for this. In his book Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, Bumbaugh spends 20 pages outlining the beginnings of the Universalist church in America, from deBenneville’s sermons preached across Pennsylvania; to the founding of the first Univeralist church by Murray in Gloucester, Massachusetts; to the founding on the New England Convention of Universalists; to Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement. It’s a rich history, and a reasonably short one: only 44 years passed between the first universalist sermons in 1741 and the first Convention in 1785 – just 44 years to go from idea to denomination.

I have always been fascinated by universalism, have always found it one of the most hopeful aspects of our faith. But it was in reading this treatment, seeing the varying theological differences within universalism, that I saw my place, standing with Caleb Rich and Hosea Ballou in believing that we pay for sins in this life – that “God doesn’t need to be reconciled to humanity; rather, human beings need to be reconciled to God.” I stand with them in understanding God as a loving deity and that Jesus’s ministry is largely about how to “grow into harmony with the Divine.” I stand with them – Ballou especially – in believing that “God would not endow humanity with reason and then present a revelation that was incompatible with that reason.” I also stand with Ballou in rejecting the Trinity and instead embracing the unity of God.

(I also, by the way, appreciate Benjamin Rush’s assertion that faithful Universalists must commit to social justice, which he calls “an unescapable consequence of Universalist faith.”)

Rich’s theology was called “Death and Glory”; unlike other Universalists who believed there is some punishment for sins after death but then eventual reconciliation with God, Rich said no – a loving God doesn’t want to see us suffer. In a world where a loving God exists, we have room to reconcile to each other, to work out our issues, to confront our sins, knowing that every step we take toward the good is another step toward the Divine. For me, it’s encouraging to think I don’t have to rely on some magical thinking to be saved from a mythical hell. Every mistake I make, every trauma I suffer, every sin I commit – everything I do to heal, reconcile, rectify, brings me closer to God and those around me.

Some find this theology too freeing – if there’s no eternal threat, why do good, they suggest. And I know it’s an issue people have long debated. But what I know is that it is human nature, for the most part, to do good – to act in altruistic ways, to nurture, to help, to want to improve the world. People want to be in right relations with other people. And when we do this, we create a more harmonious space. Universalism tells us that this isn’t an exclusive club, where only some go to heaven, and the only way you get in is by believing and/or doing exactly the right things. Univeralism tells us we’re all part of the club, and we have to do right by ourselves and each other in this world, while we can. And this is what I think the creator-creating God (see process theology) wants too.

So maybe I’m a radical process Universalist. Whatever the label, with this set of theological perspectives I feel loved, and compelled, and nurtured, and yes, in awe of the expansiveness of the Divine and of human potential.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two days puzzling over Theodore Parker’s “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity”… and I honestly have no idea what to make of it.

I am with Parker when he talks about the permanent being truth, which he identifies as finding in God and Jesus. I see what he means when he argues that ritual, dogma, even biblical texts are transient, and we shouldn’t use them as our barometer for truth.

But what I am struggling with is the inevitable conclusion – that we don’t need ministers telling us what the scriptures mean, that we don’t even need scripture to know the truth of Jesus, that we only need our own experience. I want to ask Parker how we can know about Jesus if we discard the New Testament.. are we to only seek our particular, individual impressions? Rely on faulty oral tradition with a healthy dose of skepticism?

In my youth, I was highly attracted to the transcendentalists – I was all about the personal, individual experience of the transcendent God. And maybe I still am to some degree. But I find as I get older that we have rituals, stories, knowledge that we can share through the ages – traditions passed down through the collective conscious/unconscious – that are valid and crucial to being humans freely seeking.

I am willing to have my thoughts on Parker disproved – it may be that my interpretation is wrong. But I find myself in reading him, longing for something to hold on to.

One thing I can say about Union Theological Seminary is that it’s never boring. There are always speakers, special chapel services, rallies, and events, amplified these days by Occupy Wall Street and the Protest Chaplains group that sprung out of our student body. There are always tests and papers and books to read. People are eager, active, engaged. And you even catch occasional glimpses of people who are famous, whether they’re here filming a TV show (like Law & Order or Pan-Am), scouting locations for information (like Daniel Radcliffe did) or here to speak/attend a special event (such as Cornel West, whom I spotted speaking to the president of the seminary on Wednesday).

But every now and then, you witness something and know you really saw something special.

Tuesday morning at 10am, Dr. James Cone walked into the classroom with a huge pile of books, which he carefully arranged on the table behind him. He began his lecture on black liberation theology. Now for the uninitiated among my readers, Cone is considered the father of black liberation theology, which sees Jesus not just as redeemer but as liberator and comfort to the oppressed and suffering. It is a theology that is inextricably woven with socio-economic and political movements, as well as the lived culture – both sacred and secular.

Dr. Cone began telling his story – where he came from (Arkansas), how he found himself studying white European and American theologians and becoming disgruntled with their utter lack of contact with his daily life as a black man in the days of Jim Crow. He spoke of watching Malcolm and Martin speak their diametrically opposed yet somehow complimentary messages. He shared the pain of seeing his black brothers and sisters beaten and killed on the lynching tree, at riots. He told us how the 1967 riots woke him up and led him to begin writing a new theology:

It was the response of white churches and white theologians – they called black power activists all kinds of names. I decided then that like the prophets, I have to show some sign that I was not the same person. That event changed me. My first outburst was an article in  Is Anybody Listening to Black America? called “Christianity and Black Power” – I was the ONLY black systematic theologian. I was determined to say SOMETHING about what the gospel is because all I had learned had NOTHING to do with it. *

We learned of his progression from his first book, Black Theology and Black Power (1969), through his responses to his critics, through working with other black theologians (notably Gayraud Wilmore) to define what the theology really is and how it expressed. He showed us, book by book, what he wrote, why he wrote it, and who also contributed to this field of black liberation theology.

He ended tenderly, with a discussion of his most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree:

This book is “my last word” – this is my heart. It brings together everything: who I am, what this journey has been.  This is my favorite book. It doesn’t speak as much to a specific moment but rather is a culmination. It took some time to tell ’em what I think and what the Christian faith truly means (it took me 10 years to write).*

He said he could die happy, knowing he had finished this book.

And we all got it. We all understood that we had just heard the whole story – witnessed this man’s telling of the entire arc of his life’s work. While decades’ worth of students have heard this man teach and preach, watching him work through this amazing theology, we were the first class to see the entire story described, first hand, by the man himself.

James Cone has a passion for what he does – and a passion for his faith – that is awe-inspiring. To witness his telling of his story, to know we are learning from a man who has reshaped theological thought for the next generations, well… it was really something.

I feel blessed and honored.


* I transcribed his words during class – typing as fast as I could to capture every word. Any errors or misquoting are my own.

“You bring a sense of humility.”

My friend Nan said this to me yesterday while we were having coffee to discuss the practical arrangements of my staying in her home while attending seminary. We were talking about what I want to do in ministry, and she was telling me what she saw as my gifts – my theatricality, my practicality, my gentleness, my insight, and my humility.

I agreed that on the first few, I could see it too. I have a deep background in theatre, which I know helps me when it comes to preaching and the worship arts. I have been both onstage and backstage, so I know the practical side of things. And being a GenXer, I have a bit of that pragmatic streak common in my generation. Gentleness, well, I’m working on that. I think I still have sharpness around the edges that are offputting to me and others. Insight? Well, I suppose it smore that I have a little more confidence that if I’m thinking about something, others may be too, and may wish to hear what I have to say on the topic.

But humility? How do you react to that? “Why yes, I do bring humility” sounds so… well, NOT humble. “Nah, I have no humility” is too self-depricating or snarky. I’m reminded of that funny Mac Davis tune (remember him?), “Oh Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble”:

(Ah, Muppets. But I digress.)

So what IS humility? And how do you accept it as a quality you own?

Or… is it more like Grace… something that is a gift from the Divine, something you really only notice once it’s passed?

Or… is it something that you can’t ever own, or name for yourself, but only hope to achieve it in the abstract?

A dictionary definition calls humilitythe state of being modest, respectful, egoless. Interestingly, its Latin root, humilitas, means “grounded”…. something I never thought of until I looked it up just now. So maybe (wow, talk about abruptly altering the course of a blog post!), when we embrace being grounded – rather than being too much in our heads, too much in our personalities, too much in our ego selves – we are humble.

Now this is something I can wrap my head around. I know I am my best self when I get out of my own way. This doesn’t mean I don’t exist; I’m not a fan of the kind of egolessness that makes us disappear. I believe we are here, as ego-filled, individual, thinking humans for a purpose, and that purpose can’t be to disappear again  into a singularity. Rather, when I get out of my own way, I am less likely to take things too personally, less likely to see things only from my point of view, less likely to measure myself against others. When I get out of my own way, I am more likely to have clear thoughts, enjoy the situation, and hear the joys, pains, sorrows, anger, and contentment of others. I am more likely to notice those moments of grace. I am more likely to be awed by all of Creation. And I am more likely to share that awe with others.

So…the paradox. Maybe it’s not such a paradox after all. Maybe accepting a compliment such as the one I got from Nan yesterday is about knowing a different meaning for humility and responding, “yes, thank you, I feel it is important to get out of my own way and let things happen.” How others interpret that may not matter – but it may be easier to handle being called humble and being graceful enough to accept it.

I will end with this quote from William Temple, Archbishop of Cantebury during the Second World War: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”

Just a short note, as I am tired and District Assembly goes into full swing too early tomorrow. Rev Deane Perkins gave the Gould Discourse tonight…on “Becoming a Religion for our Time.”

It was amazing… he outlined a perspective that he called “paradisical theology” – the idea that in Early Christianity, it was “Heaven on Earth” that was core to Christianity, not the crucifiction and resurrection. Deane suggested that our denomiation already is perhaps more “Christian” than later Christians… that we are the inheritors and must be the proclaimers of this new perspective.

He said (transcribing from my feverish notes)

We have never lost sight of paradise. W have never lost sight of beauty and truth. We have never lost sight of the struggle and search for more just ways to meet all peoples’ needs. We have never lost sight of our task as caregivers and stewards of the environment.

And so now it is up to us to live it, do it, be it.


UPDATE: 5/19/11: Here’s a link to the text.


I spent a lot of time last night thinking about my questions on Jesus’ divinity, my problems with The Fall, but mostly my sense that the world demands you make a choice. If I go with the Trinitarians, that feels… not in line with what seems right to me, and it certainly takes me away from the UU faith, which seems to describe my own core beliefs within its principles. If I go with Emerson and the Transcendentalists, it puts Jesus squarely in the past-tense, and that feels somehow too limiting. If I hang with Channing, it brings me back to needing to believe that, like Lewis, the story starts with The Fall. To deny altogether also seems false to me – while there’s no question that Jesus got a lot of good press and good luck in the course of human history (Paul, Constantine, Clovis) – there is still something beyond ‘he was nothing but a teacher.’ And to see him just as another aspect or archetype of the divine is insanely limiting to my mind.

 There seems to be no clear cut answer, no side to choose that satisfies  my conflicting thoughts and searching heart. And it is at this point that I get choked up and tears start to roll.  And I don’t know why. I guess there’s a part of me that feels like I can’t move on until I have settled this question. Who is/was Jesus? How does his life, teachings, state of being relate to mine?

 What surprises me most is that it matters.

 I have spent decades not worried about it, not relating to Jesus in any way. I know I put him out of my mind after I left the pentacostals… and really, never looked back. And there is a part of me that wonders if he would be on my mind if it weren’t for you. If you had been another UU, or pagan, or Jewish – even if you had helped me reconnect to God, would he have come up? Am I a product of influences? Or… in as much as you are a gift from God, is part of that gift raising the question of Jesus? If that’s the case, then I suspect I’m right on track. If not, well, hmmm….

 I suppose part of my crisis is seeking the answer to the question of why he might have existed at all. If you take away The Fall as the raison d’etre, then what is the reason? Love seems too… simple. Forgiveness? Hope? Life? Meaning? I don’t know…maybe that is tonight’s meditation. “Daughter of Israel” feels an apt moniker today.

 Deep thoughts… with an odd melancholy attached…