Critiquing UU theological method

I am a proud UU, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few bones to pick. And our “theological method,” if it can be called that, is one of them.

As the title indicates, this post is a reaction, at least in part, to this post. I agree with a number of things Tom says, especially his assertion of the importance of a cyclical relationship between theory and practice, or what I might describe as beliefs and actions. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, did a brilliant job of articulating this some time ago. To broadly paraphrase him, he said that those who say beliefs are all that matter are missing the point, just as those that say it is “deeds, not creeds” that are important are also missing it. Your beliefs affect your actions, and your actions inform your beliefs.

But to get back to the point, the difficulty I have is in singing pragmatism’s praises. Yes, we are a group that responds to issues and uses that to inform our theology. I’m not at all sure this is a good thing, at least given the extreme to which we often carry it (I recognize that pragmatism is not the only theological viewpoint in UU circles, but I don’t argue that it seems to be the preeminent one, and has been for some time). This means that we are often reactionary. It also, and this is an even bigger problem, leaves one unfocused.

To clarify, the problem with pragmatism (that is, making decisions in response to individual issues, rather than as part of a larger system of values) is two-fold. First, it only responds to issues already in play. It never sets the agenda, it only reacts to it, and usually by opposing prevailing opinion. This is, I think the hard way of making a better world, always fighting battles instead of building new structures. Second, pragmatism has no grounding. Pragmatists have no cohesive basis for making judgments, and thus they struggle to articulate their positions. We support what we like with no other reason besides our liking, and that does not make for strong arguments or strong commitments.

Need an example? This is why we put so much of our efforts toward identity discrimination and so little towards ending poverty. Both are worthy causes, but we really care about one and have little interest in the other, it seems. If we had a wider view, we might recognize that poverty is just as punishing to one’s soul as other forms of discrimination, and affects many, many more people. We might care as much about punishing economic systems as we care about incremental changes in laws.

There’s also a dirty secret: We are not alone. There’s a strong pragmatic streak in most mainstream and liberal theology (less so in conservative circles, which are often rigidly dogmatic). It’s not like UUs are at the vanguard of some pragmatic revolution. Instead, we’re all too often the reactionary edge—or worse, have fallen off the edge—of a larger movement that we have little or no connection to, because we have bought into our vision of our own “terminal uniqueness,” as the blogger Peacebang puts it.

What’s the alternative to pragmatism? It’s grounding. Our work in the world must be grounded in a larger context. I am not arguing this grounding must be identical for all of us; I do not seek a new UU creed. But each of us, both as individuals and in the context of our communities, must find what we believe. It is from a core of faith that our actions flow, and then those actions affect our faith. It’s about being in solidarity, yes, but being in solidarity with those whom we have shared values, not just those we “like.” We a solid grounding, we might be able to focus on the issues that matter most, making our constributions as strong as they can be. We might set the agenda for the future, not merely react to others’ ideas.

It’s a thought. What is your grounding? What does that call you to do in this world? What commitments are you willing to stake everything on? Until we are really trying to answer those questions, we don’t have a theology worth talking about, and I fear we won’t have actions worth doing, either.

6 Responses to “Critiquing UU theological method”
  1. Tom Schade says:

    I think that the unfocused nature of our theology comes from the fact that our reflection practice tends to be thin and slow — not a lot of vigorous debate and discussion. We don’t move from practice to theory with much energy. I am interested, for example, in how our Standing on the Side of Love Campaign shifted so easily from Same Sex Marriage to Immigration. What’s the linkage there? Why not another issue — prison rape? — for example. But more than questioning why this shift, I am also interested in what we have learned from making that shift?

    And of course, we are not alone. But we do have a particular method? I went to a Methodist school and even among liberal Methodists, there was more reliance on authority in theologizing. Some of it was quite shallow — picking parables to match their already establish viewpoints. A lot of energy went into saving Paul from himself. It was a different process. There are ways that we are different and ways that we are the same.

    • Christian says:

      I totally agree with you on the reflection practice. Whatever your starting point, doing the reflection is vital, and I think it’s difficult to argue we aren’t neglecting that. And (here’s my liberal outlook coming through) I think we’re both right on this issue. I love the conversation.

    • Tom wrote:
      “I am interested, for example, in how our Standing on the Side of Love Campaign shifted so easily from Same Sex Marriage to Immigration. What’s the linkage there?”

      I thought the connection was one of supporting families and addressing intentional oppression supported by legislation and government policy. Marriage equality supports and honors all families. Immigration and deportation can tear families apart.

      Prison rape is an injustice but I doubt that conservatives would want to address it. The root causes for prison rape is probably found in liberal criminal justice and prison reform efforts like the ones mentioned in the 2005 Statement of Conscience approved by UU congregational delegates. Addressing prison rape would mean not being harsh to criminals. How often do you see any politician — especially GOP politicians — say that we’re too tough on crime in our political cultre?

  2. Bill Baar says:

    Re: in how our Standing on the Side of Love Campaign shifted so easily from Same Sex Marriage to Immigration. What’s the linkage there? Why not another issue — prison rape? — for example. But more than questioning why this shift, I am also interested in what we have learned from making that shift?

    I think it’s pure politics. What ever fits the Democratic Party talking points.

    It’s an awful slogan (if not the campaign). I’d greatly appreaciate an assesment on what’s been learned.

    • Oh god, no. Not another assessment of what we’ve learned (a call for more profound, reflective, self-obsessed navel-gazing critique). We are masters of that, if we are masters of anything.

      Rather, how about an assessment of what’s been achieved, what’s not, and what the common footing is that we can discern to the social causes?

      SSL began in reaction to the murder of two UUs–and attempted murder of many others–simply because they were UUs, liberals of some kind.The message was (as I read it) tolerance and survival. Next up was Equal Marriage–acceptance and social equality (given the arc from the first GA affirmation of the equal rights of homosexuals, decades ago, entirely consistent and even predictable. Not a real Democratic Party talking point, but a liberal one. And had there been a vast shift and the GOP had opted to actively support the issue, I don’t think we’d have cared who our political bed-buddies were).

      Personally, I don’t care about the slogan. I care about two things; one is that it and the canary yellow t-shirts with the word Love are starting to provide a ‘brand’ that non-UUs are starting to recognize. Don’t know us, don’t know UU, but oh, the shirts, the Love People…. I think that’s a good thing. The other is that I *think* that it’s backing us, unwittingly, into engaging the great theological question left burning on the altar, as it were, at consolidation; what do we do with the legacy of an all-embracing love, and what does it demand of us?

      And for that, I am profoundly grateful. It’s taken a hell of a lot to get UUs to do anything that’s theology, and it’s long overdue–and urgent, for us, I think.

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