Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dorrien, pt. 5: On Forrest Church

See posts below for introductions to these topics.

First, prayers for the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church and his family and the congregation at All Souls Church in New York City as he continues to recover from cancer and surgery. See more at

Dorrien labels the section "Recovering Transcendentalist Universalism: Forrest Church"

D: "Liberal theology as a formal tradition began with Schleiermacher, but as an institutional North American tradition it began with the New England Arminians who, having called themselves liberal Christians, came to accept the name Unitarian. [RR: oh well, in a parallel universe...:)]. In the 1980s Forrest Church emerged as a leading advocate of typical twentieth-century Unitarian rationalism, but later judged that liberalism without God makes a poor religion. [RR: I remember meeting Forrest for the first time in 1981 I think when he was the keynote speaker at the southwest uu summer institute which became his slim book "Born Again Unitarian Universalism" and I don't think I would call him even then typical of the then Unitarian rationalism.]

D. goes into bio and calls Church's early works minimal theology, linking it with Jefferson. He goes into the celebrated public controversies and challenges and changes in Church's career and marriage and alcoholism and "personal demons" [RR: see Peter C. Hodgson for how his alcoholism shaped his own theology too. I can see a new book coming that would be great to read about so many theologians and addictions; post-Tillich they aren't waiting for widows to divulge and process it. If someone is aware of a book like this already, let me know.] Anyway, Dorrien traces Church's evolution from a 'taxidermy" approach to religion to a worshipper approach. He notes how he starts using God more and more in his public works.

D: "He favored 'liberal religion" over "religious liberalism' because the latter reduced religion to a mere adjective, like too much of Unitarian Universalism. A decade later he sought to head off the problem of relativism [RR in the one light through many windows cathedral metaphor Church used] by adding to the fifth point that the various truths deriving from Truth differ in measure "according to the insight, receptivity, and behavior of the beholder." Truth is personalized in ways by which it can be judged; individual and collective acts that harm our collective well-being are sinful; acts that serve our collective well-being are saving.

D: "He loved his adopted UU tradition, but worried that it would shrivel and die if it did not make sometehing like his own spiritual and intellectual course correction." He quotes his 2001 GA address about the need to be more evangelical in both its theology and practice [Amen]...He did not believe UUs had to return to "the old Universalist God," the name "God" or even to Emersonian mysticism, because Church did not believe in single answers. [RR: direct parallel to problems with church planting from above--if you have to start a church, particularly a church-planting church, from the top-down that is "mainstream UU" you are going to run into difficulty of not only not providing a single answer theologically to the community but no answer; but if you set out to grow from a de-centralized movement many church planting churches that reflect many single answers, sharing a free church covenantal basis, then you incarnate the theological approach Church is suggesting. I might still have doubts about its success without at least the name God being in its culture, and see Church's other points for why, but I stand to be corrected.]

D: "Modern theology was a story of doubt and negation, and Unitarianism was an extreme example [RR: I note that Dorrien doesn't seem as conversant with our more Christian Universalist tradition, but that's our/its fault]. Church compared modern theology [RR: by which is meant liberal i think] to peeling the layers of an onion in search of its seed: "Eventually, nothing is left but our tears."

D: "Church did not want his tradition to go all the way back to William Ellery Channing who described himself as a Unitarian Christian, not a Christian Unitarian. Only a small minority of Unitarian Universalists considered "Christian" as an important modifier of their religious identity. Church spoke for that option. He was a Christian universalist, not a universalist Christian. Believing in the Light that shines through all windows, he allowed Christianity to refract and shape its meanings, modifying his universalism. There is such a thing as Buddhist or humanist universalism, he reasoned, but one cannot be a Universalist universalist, for it is impossible to perceive through every window. Universalist Christianity is another impossibility, because in that case the thing that modifies one's faith becomes its nominative: "Primary allegiance is relegated to one part of the whole that encompasses it." [RR: :) see what happens when Universalism is separated from its Christian root heresy of universal salvation?]. Church's ambition for Unitarian Universalism was to recover, with a multiperspectival and out-ward reaching consciousness, the best parts of Emersonian transcendentalism. The best way to do that was to "band together, cultivate interdependence, build strong institutions, support them generously, and become more fully accepting and embracing of one another." [RR: Amen, again what a good lead-in to the necessity of church planting, if we see all of the preceding not as a recipe for trying to become a pure community unto ourselves, but include in the "one another" all those without a church home]. If twenty-first-century Unitarian Universalists could do it, their tradition would finally emerge from Emerson's shadow into his light.