by Tom Owen-Towle
Riding paradoxes is apparently our peculiar niche as liberal religionists. Who really wants existence tidily wrapped up? Who covets convictions set in stone? Plenty of people to be sure, but not Unitarian Universalists.
We seem to pitch our tents between mysticism and humanism, theism and naturalism, belief and doubt, devotion and skepticism. We are a reasonable religion with mystical sensibilities. My colleague Frances West puts it sagely: "The humanist and the theist live in me, each sometimes puzzled by the presence of the other, but willing to keep talking. So may it continue." Mystical humanism or as someone has awkwardly put it, "humanisticism" is perhaps the principal ambiguity Unitarian Universalists must harness, then ride. Some do it sidesaddle, tentatively; others with both hands to the reins, galloping full-bore ahead. Regardless, it provides a spirited jaunt!
Blaise Pascal, an eminent seventeenth-century apologist for the Christian religion as well as a mathematician and an experimental scientist, divided humankind into three groups: those who know God and love God; those who do not know God but seek God; and those who neither know nor seek God. These distinctions roughly represent the categories of affirmatist, agnostic, and atheist. It's the manifest strength of Unitarian Universalism that, within our theological embrace, adherents can honestly assume all three positions at different junctures in their journey, or even concurrently, and still be considered an honorable religious quester.
When the three A's atheism, agnosticism, and affirmatism are clasped in resourceful tension, one's religious identify becomes hale and hearty, for each attitude brings a valuable gift to the theological table, providing a system of checks and balances. Pascal noted as much in his confessional volume, Pensées: "Denying, believing, and doubting completely are to humans what running is to a horse." Atheism is a purifying influence, eliminating obsolete or abhorrent renditions of the divine. Agnosticism supplies the essential gift of measured indecision, challenging earthlings to handle the sacred lightly without forcing it into formulas, or, as Rilke said, to "live in the questions" rather than yielding to certitude or apathy. Affirmatism unflinchingly insists upon the inherent sacredness of existence, announcing what Thoreau called "the lurking-places of God."
William Blake's admonition obtains: "Without contraries, there is no progression." Healthy atheism produces a more inventive agnostic, while affirmation impels us to be more supple atheists and agnostics. Holding these paradoxes keeps both our suspicious and gullible proclivities from running amok.
While entertaining the singular wisdom of all three approaches, Unitarian Universalists proceed cautiously along the soulful journey, for each interpretation harbors its own shadows as well. The atheist is susceptible to hollowness of soul and horizon. The agnostic is vulnerable to disinterest or what Herman Melville called "the brutality of indiscriminate skepticism." The affirmatist can unwittingly become a sanctimonious crusader.
Our culture yearns for individuals who are theologically ambidextrous, who reflect an attitude of our forebear Ralph Waldo Emerson: "If you believe, suspend your belief. If you doubt, take a leap of faith!" Such is the curious destiny of the liberal religious heritage we claim as Unitarian Universalists.
The Rev. Tom Owen-Towle is the author most recently of Wrestling with God: A Unitarian Universalist Guide for Skeptics and Believers (Barking Rocks, 2002; $12.95), from which this passage is adapted. Available from the UUA Bookstore, (800) 215-9076. (A discussion facilitator's handbook is also available; $5.95.) Owen-Towle is co-minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Diego.