Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Unitarian Universalist Theologians in Gary Dorrien's latest book on liberal theology 1950-2005, pt. 1

At the Revival of the UU Christian Fellowship in New York City last week, Dr. Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary presented a lecture which previewed what we would find in his just now published book about liberal/progressive theology of the past 50 years, with an emphasis on how Unitarian Universalists figured into it all. I got my copy of the third volume of the "Making of American Liberal Theology" in the mail yesterday and tore into it. It's almost 700 pages so I will be blogging my way through it.

I will begin with mentions of UU theologians, but then later flesh it out with some others mentioned (of particular interest to me is the section on Peter C. Hodgson, recently retired from Vanderbilt Divinity School, whose works I used as the sounding-board for my own constructive theological work in seminary, as well as the concluding remarks that bring in the work of Kathryn Tanner of Univ. of Chicago, whose works I used as the sounding-board for my own M.Div thesis on ecclesiology in UU Christianity since 1945.)

The overall thesis and presentation of his lecture with the UUCF in NYC was that liberal theology, as a component of a broader progressive theology, has had a renaissance in the past thirty years or so, at precisely the same time that it was being heralded as dead, in part because the denominations in which it was fed have declined or certainly not grown compared to the growth of churches connected with more orthodox conservative theology and compared with the growth of American population.

UU theologians have played a part in that renaissance of theology--and he includes in his latest book good discussions of the following: Henry Nelson Weiman and Charles Hartshorne (in section on The New Metaphysics and the Divine Relativity, about how process theology basically saved the day for liberal theology in the middle part of the 20th century, laying the groundwork for what took place in the last half), James Luther Adams (with a section called JLA and Unitarian Christianity, linking JLA with others who have a vision of liberation including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosemary Radford Ruether, for example), and then most contemporary of all in a section appropriately titled "Rethinking the Traditions" he discusses among others the contributions of Thandeka (Meadville/Lombard theologian), particularly her work on Schleirmacher's focus on feeling and how that is grounded in "the embodied self" and the exploration of it in terms of race and class and shame as seen in her work "learning to be white," and of Forrest Church (minister NYC All Souls, and author) in a section Dorrien calls "Recovering Transcendent Universalism."

First it is great to see UUs mentioned in this work. In the arc of his trilogy, we saw the arc of our movement as part of the wider religious landscape of America. Prominent in volume one and much less so in volume two. I feared we might disappear completely in the latest volume. On the other hand, for me, it was a little painful, but accurate, to see how UU theologians figure into the mix as part of the overall question of how Christianity and liberal theology itself are not necessarily one and the same. Dorrien raises that question well, just as he does in casting liberalism as just one, though the originator, of the now many streams of a wider progressive theological river. UUism's move toward "post-Christianity" and how that opens up a new theological stream is seen in the work. I comfort myself with the knowledge that in many ways being "post-Christian" is a label I myself can wear, though I wear it in connection with a Christianity that is tied to Churchdom and not so much to a theological moving on beyond the Christian narrative, or maybe it refers to Christianity as more narrative and not a set of agreed upon axioms or principles or mental affirmations. Anyway, I digress.

I found the lecture and the book as I am reading it fascinating and on-target as I did the earlier two. I will get into more detail as I excerpt parts of it.

It affirms my understanding that it is our very strength that holds us back institutionally as being able to grow in this emerging culture of North America. Dorrien's works reflecting liberal theology in the 20th century, now in both volumes, focus on how the seminaries have been the places where this theology finds its real home and livelihood. This at the same time that liberal religious churches have declined and been thrown into crises of a different sort than the overt theological one that Dorrien traces. But before we can be hard on him for what he doesn't include (for example, why have liberal seminaries not engaged in the ecclesiology of church planting in the same way other seminaries have?, and how does all of his premise fit into the general movement of the culture from Christian churched to de-churched and unchurched, and how postmodernism has more theological meanings than its philosophical ones) he reminds us up front that his work is focused and so many are left out, as well as it being a work of history on American liberal theology and not a history of American religious liberalism.

With that said, I come away strangely hopeful and from the arena of UU theologians. For example, though there isn't much made of it explicity in the book, it is important that Forrest Church's work is included since he is a strong institutionalist and evangelist in the liberal way, and that Thandeka's work leads inexorably to the engagement with the body of others, with the earth, in a very incarnational spirit, and has led to a theological renaissance of small group and community groups work, and that James Luther Adams' social ethical strand of theology (I think there is more of a center to his theology than others argue for, despite his not publishing a single opus work of his credo) led him to the creation of so much "kingdom" groups and organizations and association. Incarnation is alive and well in UU theological traditions, and that is what is needed now to lead us into creating new communities for the flourishing and continuing transformation of all these progressive theologies Dorrien documents so well.

But on to the excerpting and commenting on these aspects of Dorrien's work. For my non-UU readers and lurkers, don't just bear with me but see how this might help you plant God communities in the new pluralistic culture, as so many of my UU readers have had to do with my normally heavy dose of non-UU and non-liberal commentaries and reviews.