The chief intellectual challenge facing Unitarian Universalists at the mark of the 50th anniversary of the merger of two separate, but deeply related American faith traditions, is that we do not know who we are. We do not know who we are as Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists, and this admission is not a deep insight nor is it original with this author. Everyone knows this, and has for some time now. It is not because merger eliminated the distinctions and, thereby, begged the question of the identity of the "new thing" Unitarian Universalism, though it might have once. Our lack of understanding of who we are (others on the religious and cultural landscape may actually know our identity better than we do, a subject for another post) has roots in who we are, and “how” we have changed over time. I say "how" we have changed over time because there is a definite trend today towards responding with, "everything changes," as if this observation is an interpretation and a helpful one at that. But, offered as an interpretation it reveals frustration and despair, and is not a way to meet the challenge itself. In not seeking to understand “how” we have changed with the times, and how our changes over time have influenced who we are and where we are now, we give in to that frustration and despair.
Historical analysis is part of understanding identity. It is not a denial that time changes all things. It is seeking to understand how that change has changed us, whoever the “us” is! But, historical analysis needs some kind of template to understand the stages of identity emergence and change. To understand time in terms of stages is to take an historical view of things.
One template for understanding our intellectual history – a key to identity - can be found in Martin Riesebrodt's new book, The Promise of Salvation. In this 2009 book Riesebrodt identified the chaos postmodernism brought into the discipline of Religious Studies, and offered a path out of that confusion and its radical subjectivism. Postmodernism left many mute when it came to understanding "religion" in a way that the universal practice of it could be studied and understood. It caused an “identity crisis” in Religious Studies, as it has in other disciplines, until talking about talking – linguistics – came to be seen as the only real academic discipline, the “Queen of the Sciences,” one might say, a title once held by theology! Because Riesebrodt is up to the challenge of creating something post-postmodern (Tackling the interpretive challenge of what is “post” something that is “post”) he might also be an ally in attacking the chief challenge facing Unitarian Universalists in the 21st century by giving us a way to understand who we are, and how we have come to where we are. He might help us in seeing our identity “post losing it"!
Riesebrodt offered three intellectual discourses that have formed the study of religion in the West since the Enlightenment. The first is the child of the Enlightenment, which also gave the world liberal religion in general, and eventually Unitarianism and Universalism as they have come to be known as historic faith traditions.
The Enlightenment introduced the use of Reason in a particular way, distinct from how it had been used in previous epochs. It became the means to understand “Religion” as a concept. In the area of Religious Studies, Marx, Freud, and Durkheim are examples of this. We are the quintessential historical faith tradition-progeny of this. Enlightenment Reason had two branches. In one, Reason was seen as heralding the eventual disappearance of religion. Gradually wed to modern science, Reason would evolve to replace the “species” of religion as the chief means to interpret human meaning and destiny. The other branch of Enlightenment Reason yielded traditions of discourse like the Unitarianism of Channing, with his paradigmatic declaration of Reason’s use with Scripture; and the Universalism of Ballou in uncovering the pathology of vicarious atonement in its underlying depiction of the nature of God. In our case the discourse of Reason was fashioned into the institutions and structures of the church. This discourse of Reason yielded the 20th century’s Humanism of John Dietrich and Ken Patton, though with a significant twist. Held within our ranks were both branches of Enlightenment Reason, which gave us our 20th century central discourse: The intellectual tradition of the Theist/Humanist (read, Atheist) debate. Goodness, it’s even evident in the contest between our red and blue hymnals! Our version of the Reason discourse continued to push this philosophical question to the forefront of our religious identity with a vigor that defined us: Is there a God?
But, how modern science came to be understood amongst us changed the nature of the debate as it evolved in the latter parts of the 20th century, until it became more and more theism vs atheism and, finally, a kind of eclectic-spiritualism vs materialism. You can still see the vestiges of this discourse today, though after postmodernism, and another cultural trend, it now debilitates us in terms of our identity, where once it invigorated us. But, we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves!
The second tradition of discourse concerning “Religion” as a concept for study is the Romantic tradition. In Religious Studies, Riesebrodt sites the evidences of this tradition as well, in the form of Frazer and Eliade to name two. In our own context this began to distinguish itself separate from the discourse of Reason, through Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendental Idealists. Initially, though, this Romanticism was an “in house” conversation amongst us, which spilled over into the culture to become the American Renaissance. In the early to mid part of the 20th century it was evident in figures like Jenkin Lloyd Jones and Frank Lloyd Wright, who straddled the line between our faith tradition and the Romanticism of the culture. It remained largely the domain of the culture’s literary canon, and as a means for us to engage with culture, until the second half of the 20th century when, under the social pressure of the 1960's, it emerged again into our now formed Unitarian Universalism in two guises; first, a religious environmentalism, which yielded the “web of existence” metaphor and all that has gone with that; and second, a suspicion of institutions, always a part of Emersonianism; and with the first being the institutions and history of the church itself. Since the 1960’s, this Romantic discourse has been exacerbated by the "come-outers," who brought their institutional suspicions, manifest explicitly in their leaving their previous traditions, into the center of the Unitarian Universalist church itself. We cared about the environment and the fate of the Earth, but knew the church itself, especially our own church, contained structures that oppressed more than liberated, and allegiance to the church could blind one to that. We looked outside the sanctuary and neglected its inside for the oppression it held there. It was a return to the “Protestantism” of old in the sense of protesting the structures of the church; but, with a modern ecological concern made sacred.
But these two intellectual conversations - Reason and Romanticism, head and heart in other words - shaped Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism from its beginnings. Both are discourses; that is, both are ways of conversing about matters that shape us. Both are ways to understand who we are. Both are facets of the same “personality” that form us as one.
Yet, Riesebrodt identifies the third discourse which we will take up in the next post. Given the cultural context within which this third discourse arose, it has changed us from considering the question of identity as a matter of historical understanding, into a conviction that we do not and cannot know who we are because everything changes.