Unfinished with Christianity

Unfinished with Christianity

Most Unitarian Universalists live in some kind of tension with Christianity. I wish we talked about this more.
Doug Muder


One big reason I identify with Unitarian Universalism is because our religion struggles with its past. Unitarianism and Universalism each started out Protestant, pushed Christianity’s boundaries until they broke, and then (finding each other somewhere along the way) went on a spiritual journey through Humanism, Buddhism, Paganism, and a few isms that probably don’t even have names.

Well, me too: Protestant, Pagan, Buddhist, Humanist, You-Name-It—the whole long, strange trip.

And if today I have trouble summing up my deepest convictions in a nice, clean sound bite—an “elevator speech,” as UUA President William G. Sinkford calls it—that puts me right in the mainstream of UU tradition. “It has been the fault of all sects,” wrote the nineteenth-century Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, “that they have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite.”

My “elevator speech” is and always has been a muddle. Occasionally I imagine that I’ve gotten it right, only to have it turn to ashes in my mouth the next time I try to use it. Inevitably I’ve left out something essential, or said more than I really believe, or both. My religion may or may not be infinite, but it certainly defies all my attempts at circumscription.

And yet, unlike my elevator speech, my identity as a Unitarian Universalist is not a muddle. On the contrary, it gets more and more solid all the time. The harder I try to “circumscribe the infinite,” the more camaraderie I feel with the efforts of my fellow UUs. The content of their struggles may differ from mine, but I take an ever-increasing pride in their stubborn unwillingness to grab for the easy answer or stifle the inconvenient question.

I just wish—and I know this may sound perverse—that we struggled a little more. I wish we shared more of our individual struggles and did more of our struggling together.

Let me get more specific and more personal: Like Unitarianism and Universalism, I grew up Christian. It’s been nearly four decades since I graduated from my Lutheran elementary school, where we memorized King James Bible verses each evening and recited them each morning, and I still don’t know what to do with Christianity. When I try to embrace it, it runs away from me. When I reject it, it comes back. Inside my head—as inside my church—Christianity is a persistent minority point of view. Sometimes it drives me nuts: Aren’t I done with all this by now? Aren’t we?

But no, I’m not done—and I don’t think Unitarian Universalism is, either. We have a Christian heritage, and we need to come to terms with it.

Recently a book I’ve been writing has had me looking deeper into Unitarian Universalism’s Christian heritage. I found myself reading whole books and sermons—not just the well-selected quotes that make it into responsive readings on Sundays—of foundational Unitarian and Universalist preachers like Channing, Theodore Parker, and Hosea Ballou. It was a time-trip—not just into early nineteenth century New England, but into my personal past as well.

At first I found myself wanting to idealize these men, to make them into the kind of giants that the prophets and apostles had been for my Lutheran teachers. Part of me hoped to discover that the only reason Christianity had never completely worked for me was that I had never studied the right Christians.

And I found a lot to idealize in our movement’s founders. I can only speculate on the courage it took to voice the doubts and objections that so many others of their era were repressing. As I read Channing’s 1819 sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” I imagined a hush falling over the Baltimore church when he announced that the traditional doctrine of the atonement, in which Jesus died to assuage the otherwise implacable anger of God, “communicate[s] very degrading views of God’s character.” And I wondered what expressions Parker saw on his listeners’ faces during his 1841 sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity,” when he proclaimed that the doctrines of Christianity would be equally true or false even if it could be shown “that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived.”

Already in 1805, many decades before psychologists analyzed the mechanisms of projection, Ballou was turning around the Old Testament picture of a wrathful God, interpreting it as an expression of humanity’s anger at its creator. In A Treatise on Atonement, he illustrated this projection with the marvelous image of a fly sitting on the lens of a telescope, fooling astronomers into seeing a monster on the face of the sun. The fly was our human anger; the monster the wrath of God. “So it is with our vile and sinful passions, could we behold them in ourselves, and view them as they are, they would appear in their finite and limited sphere; but the moment we form those passions in Deity, they magnify to infinity.”

But as I kept reading, my idealization of these preachers wouldn’t hold. I found myself arguing with Channing and the others just as I had argued with my teachers. In Channing’s 1834 Easter sermon, “A Future Life,” I found a vision of the afterlife that was not the least bit metaphorical, but as solid and literal as London. Our departed friends might be watching us through “spiritual senses, organs,” Channing said, “by which they may discern the remote as clearly as we do the near.” And his 1821 Harvard lecture, “Evidences of Revealed Religion,” justified miracles from the assumption that the entire Cosmos was created for our education: “The great purpose of God, then, I repeat it, in establishing the order of nature, is to form and advance the mind; and if the case should occur in which the interests of the mind could best be advanced by departing from this order, or by miraculous agency, then the great purpose of the creation, the great end of its laws and regularity, would demand such departure; and miracles, instead of warring against, would concur with nature.”

I couldn’t follow Channing there, and eventually I realized that I couldn’t fix my relationship with Christianity just by adding a few Unitarian books to the Bible or canonizing some Universalist saints. The Unitarian and Universalist founders speak most clearly to me when I don’t elevate them to a pantheon, but identify with them as fellow strugglers, the same way I identify with UUs today.

But how they struggled, I think, still has a lot to teach us. Channing, Ballou, and Parker did not take the Christianity of their day as a given and argue for or against it. Each found elements of unspeakable wonder in Christianity, encrusted by doctrines and theologies gone horribly wrong. Channing looked for the “essential” in Christianity, Parker for the “permanent.” Reading them, I picture Christianity as a statue they have dredged up from an ancient shipwreck, with only a gleam here or there betraying the promise of what lies beneath. The UU founders did not seek to pass on unchanged the religion of their teachers, but to remove the encrustations without shattering the statue to fragments.

I wish I saw more of that approach to Christianity in UU churches today. I’ve been in far too many discussions where Christianity was the unmentioned elephant in the room. Most of us, I think, live in some kind of tension with Christianity. Some of us miss it. Some are running away from it. Some feel alienated from it or oppressed by it. And some, like me, feel all those things at the same time. But like a dysfunctional family with a secret, we seem to have an unspoken agreement not to bring it up. Say much of anything—positive or negative—about Jesus or the Bible, and many UUs will look at you like you just let out a loud belch.

On those rare occasions when we do discuss it—on the Internet, in discussion groups, or informally at coffee hour—too often we just debate whether Christianity is good or bad. We talk about it as if it had been defined once and for all by some distant authority, and is not definable or re-definable by us. But if Channing, Ballou, Parker, and their contemporaries had looked at Christianity that way, there would be no Unitarian Universalism.

The early twentieth-century Universalist Clarence Skinner made a distinction between belief, which he saw as a passive assent, and faith, which, in Worship and a Well Ordered Life, he called “an expression of unconfined zeal of spirit. . . . It is more than the assurance of things not seen—it is an adventure after them.” And William James enviously described the willingness of the faithful “to be as nothing in the flows and waterspouts of God.”

Faith, zeal, adventure—those words speak of the gleam I still see in the encrusted statue of my youthful Christianity. I want to know if it’s possible for me to separate the vibrant vision of the Kingdom of God—a place where love and generosity (rather than grasping and suspicion) are so abundant that they constitute a practical strategy for living—from the cumbersome and contradictory theology I rejected as a teenager.

I don’t plan to turn my back on the Pagan, Buddhist, and Humanist parts of my journey, but this Christian work of discernment is going to be at least a part of my religious struggle for many years to come. I can only hope that my fellow UUs—even those who will never again consider Christianity for themselves—will be able to identify with my struggle as I identify with theirs.

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