Thursday, June 30, 2011
So Who Are The UU Christians?
I get this question (and it's variants, including "How can you be both UU and Christian?") much more often than I wish to. It isn't a bad question, but it is a difficult one. The fact is, I have never come up with a good answer. The problem, I think, comes down to one of perspective and language. What does the questioner mean by "Christian"? More importantly, what does the questioner mean by "Unitarian" and Universalist"?
It is really quite awkward that a non-creedal organization like the UUA has consistently chosen to use two theological doctrines in its name. There have been other name suggestions over the years, many of which would be much more accurate. Still, we keep this name to reflect the merger of two distinct liberal movements within Christianity. They weren't (and aren't) the only liberal movements out there, but they are two with profound stories to tell.
Yes, I said that they were Christian movements. These are Christian doctrines, of course, and really make the most sense in that context. For most of their history the Unitarians and the Universalists just assumed they were Christians. In the case of the Unitarians, they were Christians with an eccentric but not always strictly "Unitarian" christology. In the case of the Universalists they were Christians who believed that all people (both Christian and non-Christian) went to heaven. Universalists themselves had a variety of views on the nature of Jesus. If these famous UU predecessors (Emerson, Channing, Ballou, et. al.) were asked this question, they might respond by saying "How can you be UU and not be Christian?"
Again, the problem of language appears. The modern Unitarian Universalist Association, after all, is not a Christian institution. There is still a sense among some (not me) that the UUA is anti-Christian. As you may have gathered, I don't believe that this is because of the two theological positions stated in its name. There have been many more forces involved in creating the Association we know today.
Either way ("anti-" or "non-"), the current situation is a circumstance divorced from its historic roots. Honestly, it isn't one that gets in my way all that much except when I have to answer this "UU Christian" question. In this context one could simply respond by pointing out all you have to do institutionally is be a Christian who goes to a UU church. In spite of attempts to clarify what, exactly, the UUA stands for, it remains non-creedal.
This, however, isn't usually what people mean either. There is a sense in the way the UU Christians themselves use the term that implies (accidentally, I believe) doctrinal adherence. That is, if you are a Buddhist in the UUA, putting "Unitarian Universalist" in front of your theological preference is primarily a geographical designation. "I am Buddhist but I go to the UU Church". Theologically, you might also be saying "I support the free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Good stuff. I support that, too. However, if you are a Christian in the UUA, doing the same thing it sounds (gasp!) downright creedal. It is misleading. There are, after all, many Trinitarians in the UUA. There always have been. Also, many Christians in this context (and in other contexts) are Arians (look it up), or Agnostics, or don't particularly see formal christology as terribly relevant to their faith. In the UUA some Christians, in fact, are Athiests...
I have always preferred the terms "Free Christian" and "Liberal Christian" as they encompass my own faith and those of many other people on similar journeys. For all three of these terms, the nutshell definition is that we choose to "freely follow Jesus" without adherence to specific creeds. The particulars, are up to individuals to discern. We also make a point of claiming the word "Christian". To those who tell us we are not, we respond by asking who made them the gatekeepers of the faith. We will decide for ourselves if we are Christian, thank you very much!
Of course, many of us choose to do our discernment in groups. We congregate in many different ways. The way I am most familiar with, though, is the Christian church. Later I will write a bit about what being a member of a Christian Church in the UUA is like. I am very interested in discovering what these churches can be in the future. Until then, here are some links. The first one is particularly useful.
Here is a brief essay written by the Rev. Tom Wintle. Tom is the Senior Minister of First Parish Weston, a member congregation of the Council of Christian Churches in the UUA (note the formulation of the name). He is also one of the senior prophets in our movement, having held many leadership positions in the UUCF, the CCCUUA and other organizations. Once again, if you have questions like the one in the title of this post, it is probably the most important and helpful thing to read.
Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF)
Council of Christian Churches in the UUA (CCCUUA)
Arius (I wouldn't really leave you hangin' would I?)