UU Theology and Me–a work in progress

There is an ongoing and rich discussion in the UU blogosphere about UU theology and why we don’t see more of it. It’s certainly made me think, even though I hardly have time to think right now.

This is my question: What counts as theology? Because I think I preach UU theology in every sermon I give. Is it deep, philosophical musing on the nature of God? Sometimes. Is it filled with obscure multisyllabic words? Not if I can help it. Is it thoughtful? I hope so–some weeks certainly more than others. If theology can be defined by the word’s etymology, I certainly attempt to create “logos” (words, knowledge, study, rationale, thought..) about “theos” or God, the Divine, the Sacred, Mystery, Religion, Spirituality…etc. I look for ways to describe what UU blogger Dan Harper calls “moments of transcendence.”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “theology” three ways:
1. The study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions.
2. A system or school of opinions concerning God and religious questions: Protestant theology; Jewish theology.
3. A course of specialized religious study usually at a college or seminary

I’m going to assume here that those asking for more theology in our shared UU world are asking for more of the first definition: the study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions.

Of course, that leads me to yet another question: What is rational? Again, according to the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. Having or exercising the ability to reason.
2. Influenced by reasoning rather than by emotion.
3. Of sound mind; sane.
4. Based on scientific knowledge or theory rather than practical observation.

For the sake of argument, let’s say I have #1 and #3 covered. (We can argue about that another time.) As far as #4 goes, little of what we know as theology is based on scientific knowledge. (Though Alfred North Whitehead certainly found a way to do it.) For the sake of argument, let’s agree that UU theology can go beyond simple scientific knowledge and theory. Let’s say it’s ok to speculate about what may not be “knowable” by science at this time. UU theology shouldn’t ignore science, but neither is it science. (Again, we can argue about that later. I’m trying to make a different point.)

That leaves us with “rational” #2: Influenced by reasoning rather than emotion. I’m guessing this is the real burr under the saddle for those who are longing for more “theology” in our UU movement. I have to admit that a lot of my sermons are informed by something more than reason. Reason is a part of what I draw upon when I write and preach to my congregation, but so is emotion. Perhaps a better word for this way of knowing is “experience,” but I don’t deny that a significant part of my preaching is grounded in something that, while not without reason, could be said to be “irrational” by those who define rationality by a more positivistic standard than I.

Preaching, for me, is not simply an oral argument. Nor is it a spoken essay. A sermon is meant to elicit feeling as well as thought. That’s why stories are such an important part of what I do. I see the preacher as someone who is not so much imparting new information, but stirring up the things that people already know, but have “forgotten” or at least, forgotten to live. Sometimes–but rarely–I introduce a concept or piece of information that I know will be new to most in my congregation, but frankly, I find it far less satisfying to act as teacher, than to fully fill the role of preacher.

There is something uniquely powerful about this calling and I try to remember that with it comes an almost unfathomable responsibility. I must be careful with every word I say, because the people have entrusted me with their pulpit and they listen. They listen with an attitude of openness that is a rare and precious gift. When I preach, I am invited into people’s minds and hearts. They come willing to be changed by what I say. And so, I do more than present rational arguments. I try, every week, to do what Ralph Waldo Emerson hoped all good preachers would do:”deal out to the people [my] life–life passed through the fire of thought.”

My call is not simply to explain the world rationally to people, nor is it to berate them if they experience or believe something beyond rationality. My job is to help them fully and faithfully (in the sense of dogged determination and action) explore the full width, depth, and breadth of their experience and knowing. To me, this is the very definition of religious freedom. I am an advocate for both freedom of thought and freedom of belief. That’s why I love the die-hard skeptics in my congregation AND the believers.

Theology, for me, is both thinking about God, religion, and belief, and experiencing them. When I preach, I sometimes simply describe the places, people, situations, and moments in which I have seen the sacred break through into the mundane. To me, this is theology. It is a knowing of Divinity, of Mystery, of Good. It is, for me, something deeper than thinking about God and religion. It is the lived knowing of sacred experience. I hold that up, examine it against the wisdom of science, the measure of conscience, and the experience of others I trust. But ultimately, because I am privileged to serve in a free religious tradition, I let each person determine for themselves what is true.

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4 thoughts on “UU Theology and Me–a work in progress

  1. Interesting thing about theology. It can be theoretical or practical. Academia deals with the theoretical, and you as a minister get to wrestle with the practical. The problem here is that for theology to be practical, it has to be relevant. For it to be relevant it must be holistic, not merely based on the rational and measureable. Most of life exists outside these bounds. I have not heard you preach, but from what I know of you, I imagine you balance the two well.

  2. For me, what we need isn’t really more “theology” — as the term has come to mean academic writing, which I find hard to wade through and rarely especially illuminating. I think what we need is simply more thoughtful writing and opportunities for dialogue that draw people into deeper reflection on their own lives, their commitments, their communities, and their ultimate values.

    Much of this is happening in worship and discussion in congregations, of course, but I think the reason people keep pointing to the absence of serious UU theology is that there are almost no conversations taking place beyond the congregational level that can help people in congregations take things deeper. It’s rare to find a Unitarian Universalist idea in print, rare to find a new idea that feels relevant and distinctively UU, rare to find a conversation that any serious Unitarian Universalist can’t afford to ignore. To me, that’s the basic problem.

    If, in addressing it, we found a way to encourage a few more smart UUs to do PhD’s in theology, great. But the real need is for thoughtful popularizers of contemporary scholarship and thoughtful articulation of themes important to our religious lives.

  3. “Theology, for me, is both thinking about God, religion, and belief, and experiencing them.”

    Amen to that! That is precisely, for me, the meaning of theology. It is knowledge, experience, rationality, subjectivity, belief, skepticism, and more.

    Your sermons, as I experience them, effectively incorporate theology as I personally define it. They evoke emotions and thoughtful contemplation, and at the same time challenge us to go out into the world and practice our spirituality.

    Namaste,

    Jeh

  4. This looks like an excellent post, but I do’nt have time to read more than the beginning of it. I’ll be back later to read it more carefully, and presumably comment.

    Happy New Year to you!!!! And to your family.

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