Friday, June 22, 2007

Theology Redux and GA 2007 Notes

Carl Scovel, minister emeritus at Kings Chapel in Boston, God love him, gave the address to the ministers at the UUA ministers day from the 50-year in ministry perspective. The full comments will be published by the UUMA I am sure, but he had at least a roll of us UU Christian ministers Amen-ing and nodding, and his comparison with ministry then and now had a lot of support it seemed to me though the address was part "scold" in general and part 'blessing." The scold was at no one or no group in specific just all of us I guess for how we sacrifice vocation for profession, how we seek to make ministry about us and our journeys (well maybe it was a scold on Emerson, after all, or at least how UUs have used Emerson). He had lots of great examples and others I trust will pick up and blog on them. Once it is published somewhere I promise to republish it and hope others will too. He didn't want to return to the old days when he entered ministry, of course, and made the sins of the fathers clear. But...

Perhaps the line that got the most applause, at least from our corner, was his statement that at the merger two theological traditions tried to merge and weren't able to and we didn't know then who we were theologically and evidence through the years is that we still don't know who we are theologically. He compared the traditions and called them inclusion vs. universalism. Universalism is the focus on how God's love is for all. Inclusion, if I understood him right and I will try to ask for clarity, is about us (people) trying to welcome and incorporate all. One focuses on God and the other on a set of people. If you begin from and focus on God's love it will create the spirit of hospitality but do so from a theological center; if you begin from and focus on our ability to be welcoming because of who we are, and make that the theological basis, then you end up with continuing fragmentation theologically. I am not saying this as succintly as Carl, and maybe partly my own thinking spurred by his, and it is nothing new but he said it very very well this time and I can't wait for the full text. Especially as there was much more that was good in it.

Carl's 50-year address was preceded by Barbara Pescan's eloquent 25-year address. But when the full text of both of these come out, theologians among us need to point out for others the two strands and their ramifications. My hunch at the moment is that Carl's nailed the Universalism tradition and Barbara's nailed what he called the Inclusion tradition.

He also said that the fact that charismatic conservative Christians are now adopting and promoting the Universalist tradition is proof that God has a bad sense of humor.

Theology has been on my mind before and so far at GA.

One: I have been thinking how we seem to have lost even theological conversation on a national front. I am not sure the Commission on Appraisal rethinking of the UUA Principles and Purposes can even, it seems, spur it on. Maybe it is me but that seems to be not picking up steam the way I once thought it would. We have shifted so much to sociological basis for our identity that I am not sure we can mount theological debate. I find myself missing it. I find myself wondering what happens when people are too tired or too distracted or whatever to be able to say, for example, as I would say (and this is just me talking, just me, not my employer, just me), that UUism not only needs to put God front and center in our purposes, but that it's not heresy to say that Jesus should be (of course I know he isn't) the central spiritual touchstone of our tradition. Central here means center but without a prescribed circumference. I think following Jesus should be the future of the UU church and not just its past. That I think I am right and I think others are wrong (of course I know I might not be; that doesn't mean I can't maintain it) does not make me a bad UU. For our reworked P&P I suggest a slightly modified 1935 Washington Universalist Avowal that tempers some of the "we can bring about the kingdom" hubris.

Two: Theology has been an undercurrent in the controversy over Independent Affiliates. See http://www.thelivelytradition.blogspot.com. The rhetoric has been that the focus needs to shift to the UUA being identified with congregations and not with various and sundry and especially small independent affiliates. So only those are likely to be approved who can show a major link between them and congregations. But also, any with a specific theological perspective, are suspect on that grounds alone no matter how connected they are to congregational life. I asked if for example, the Council of Christian Churches within the UUA could apply as an independent affiliate, not that they would or would want to since they in the past expressly decided against it, but they are a group of congregations themselves binding together to work for congregations; and I was told by the UUA Moderator that I was suggesting a kind of "end-run" around the issue but that it would prompt an "interesting discussion" as they hadn't thought of that before. That's because congregations having a specific theological orientation don't fit into the UU model; when the very basic core of congregationalism and our polity in history is that our congregations have not only the right but the responsibility to decide their theological orientation, be it whatever. We should be doing all we can to encourage our congregations as congregations to take theological stances and to be able to justify them and defend them and of course always be open to the movement of the Spirit as it may lead them to change. It is why people went to the stake, and why they journeyed here.

I don't know what the action will be from the Board about the UUCF or others with applications pending; I like others am not so worried about the effect of all this on the UUCF as I am on the UUA itself. The decision will be made by the Board on Monday. The upshot of the hearings seems to be that the Board wants independent affiliates to figure out how to work together in order to have access to things like the UUA website and only an umbrella group consisting of the various affiliates, such as those with theological orientations, will meet the new criteria. This is not a new suggestion but came up at the St. Louis GA in hearings and conversations. There is a lot here and will be visited by many others and by me later too after more reflection. I am curious about whether the suggestion will increase or further decrease the presence of theology on an associational level; I am curious if the bylaws will be changed to drop the "UU organizations" part of the misson of the UUA along with the stated service to congregations, or if UU organizations are only what the Board says are UU organizations (I still favor congregations making that distinction and think you could put a percentage of congregation support level into the criteria); I think that this issue has much more beneath the surface which over time could be interesting to explore. Here I will just say, in the vein of this post, that it is interesting how theological groups among us are lumped into the same mix as all others---call me biased, but I think the religious association should be biased in favor of theological groups, and that its leaders should be able to draw lines and say yes, this theological group is part of us, and so is this one, but should the need arise also be able to say no this other is not.

Oh well it is late and as you can tell I am need of communion tomorrow, and look forward to Brother Tom Schade's pentecost-themed sermon "Gathered Into Many Bodies" 10:45 a.m. today in Convention Room C123-124. And tomorrow night's hymn sing. We are going to have our biggest dinner and hymn sing turnout---75 plus.


Type rest of the post here

4 comments:

Jaume said...

Ron, I agree with many things you say in your post, but I want to ask you something as a reply to your statement that the future of the UUA should be following Jesus. And my question is:

Who is Jesus for a liberal today?

It is not a simple question. We both now that the fundamentalist, perhaps even the plainly Evangelical answer is not the answer. Even the standard liberal answer may not be the answer. This is another wording of the same question:

What is left of Jesus of Nazareth and his legacy after the Jesus Quests, the searches for the historical Jesus, and the studies on early Christianity? The Jesus Seminar's books, with four or five ink colors about historical likelihood?

I have been planning to write on this in my own blog, and try to discern how the Jesus Quests have probably killed liberal Christianity. Your answer may help me to clarify my own thoughts. Thanks again for your kindness and patience.

Ron said...

Jaume, hi and thanks. That is a good question and I will respond next week when I get back from vacation in California. My short answer is that I have been moved deeply in my spiritual faith by the work of the Jesus Seminar, and still am, because the Jesus they help us to see, the Jesus of the parables, and the Jesus whose death and resurrection became a parable for the early church is the central teacher and primary story I embed my life in, or try to; but of course, I am also moved deeply by the experiences of the Holy Spirit community that formed in response to Jesus, in his spirit, and the traditions, many of them, and the great monastics and mystics and scientists and social justice rebels and all the rest that have helped to carry Jesus down the centuries to me. So, in the words of the UUCF brochure Who Are the UU Christians, I am moved by the teachings of Jesus like classic Unitarian Christians, the traditions of the Jesus Community like catholic UU Christians, and the liberationist Jesus that moves me to live incarnationally in the world where others don't. I think all of this, as well as the UU Convergent Christians that walk with Jesus and Buddha, etc. will be the shape of a non-creedal UUism I can only dream of. I don't pretend that my own trinitarian Universalism will be a mainstream even within UU Christianity much less within a UUism several generations hence.

My post is probably shaped by the time of year, and the day for visions and grumpiness, as much as anything :)...

Jaume said...

Thank you, Ron. Probably your answer is right, and the prophetic and liberating aspect of Christian history is a basis to go on, even when the historical founder may have become a blurry image or a constructed literary character with little connection to the physical man.

Happy holidays!

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