Thursday, October 2, 2008

Biblical Unitarian Universalism

Here at American Creation Eric Alan Isaacson writes of his recent "Unitarian Vacation" in Boston. It's notable how many of America's famous Founding era churches now belong to the Unitarian Universalists. Some highlights from his post:

Governor [John] Winthrop’s statue stands today outside his First Church’s current structure, which today accommodates the merged congregations of the First and Second Churches in Boston – the Second or “North” Church being a 1649 offshoot of First Church, where the Rev. Increase Mather and Cotton Mather held the pulpit in its early days, and where the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson would preach, from 1829 to 1832.

I suspect that Emerson would be gratified to know that the church’s office today features a portrait of his predecessor in the pulpit, the Puritan Rev. Increase Mather, on one wall, contemplating a statue of the Buddha standing against the far wall.


When we joined the Salem congregation for Sunday worship services on August 17, 2008, the Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell ceded his pulpit to a member of the congregation, Dr. Rose Wolf. Dr. Wolf identified herself as “a Christian witch,” and delivered a sermon on the subject of “The Emerald Tablet and the Golden Key: Reclaiming Jesus as a Witch.”

Our coblogger Tom Van Dyke, no fan of present day Unitarian Universalism commented:

What it said is that Unitarian Universalism has the physical possession of a number of Founding-era churches. However, that fact doesn't give Unitarian Universalism any theological claim to the "congregations" of that day or to the consciences of the Founders.

To conscript John Adams into Unitarian Universalism's positions on contemporary social issues falls short of intellectual honesty or credibility. Nor could we assert with any confidence whatsoever that John Adams would have been cool with a self-proclaimed witch in his pulpit.

This relates to an interesting dynamic: "unitarianism" and "universalism" were alive and well among the key Founding Fathers and the theologians they followed. Indeed, certainly Jefferson, J. Adams, and Franklin and likely Washington, Madison and many others were both unitarian and universalist in their theology. But if we say "did you know these Founders were unitarian-universalists?" that might intimate that they were like today's UUs when, in reality, they were different creatures. Theological unitarianism simply means the belief that Jesus is not fully God or the second person in a Triune Godhead. And theological universalism means the notion that all men will eventually be saved; most in the Founding era believed in a period of temporary punishment for the unsaved, eventual redemption. And indeed though many "key" Founders were attracted to unitarianism and universalism because they found these ideas "reasonable," some theologians argued for these positions from the Bible alone as the ultimate authority.

For instance, Charles Chauncy, who by the way presented these heterodox ideas under the auspices of "Christianity." As Nathan Hatch explained:

Charles Chauncy, pastor of Boston’s First Church for sixty years (1727-1787), is the most prominent example of an exclusive appeal to Biblical authority in order to unravel theological orthodoxy. Chauncy was persuaded to emphasize Bible study by reading the works of English divines, such as Samuel Clarke’s The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1712) and John Taylor’s The Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin (London, 1740). Both authors used a “free, impartial and diligent” method of examining Scripture to JETTISON, respectively, the doctrines of the Trinity and of Original Sin. [8]

During the 1750s, after the Great Awakening, Charles Chauncy spent seven years engaged in the approach to Bible study expounded by these English authors. In the spring of 1754 he wrote to a friend,

“I have made the Scriptures my sole study for about two years; and I think I have attained to a clearer understanding of them than I ever had before.”

His studies led him to draft a lengthy manuscript in which he REJECTED the idea of eternal punishment and embraced universalism. He kept this work in his desk for over a quarter-century, its conclusions, he confessed, too controversial “to admit of publication in this country.” He was nearly eighty when he finally allowed a London publisher in 1784 to print The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations…or, the Salvation of All Men. To justify his conclusions, Chauncy relied on the biblical force of his argument, “a long and diligent comparing of Scripture with Scripture.” He explained to Ezra Stiles, “The whole is written from the Scripture account of the thing and not from any human scheme.” This unorthodox biblicist would have been gratified indeed by the reaction of one minister who, finding the book’s arguments convincing, wrote,

“He has placed many texts and passages of Scripture in a light altogether new to me, and I cannot help thinking his system not only rational, but Scriptural.” [9]

This is what the unitarian-universalism of the Founding era more looked like. But the problem of terming it "UU" and the confusion with contemporary UU still remains. But then what do we call it? Do we call it "Christianity"? Some will balk that like Mormonism it isn't "Christianity" whatever it calls itself. This is why Dr. Gregg Frazer has coined a new term to describe this system in which America's key Founders believed: "theistic rationalism."


Tom Van Dyke said...

For the record, what I'm a "fan" of or not a fan is completely irrelevant. I'm a "fan" of religious liberty and the right to believe anything you want to. As a putative Catholic, I would not expect anyone else to find the idea of Christ-in-a-cracker anything less than absurd.

But since Unitarian Universalism makes theological and historical claims to forward its socio-political agenda, I believe those claims warrant close inspection. At this point, I don't find that those claims hold up. UUism is theologically and historically a new religion, not an evolution of the old ones, although it uses some of their buildings.

As for unitarianism and its doubts about Jesus' divine nature, and universalism's idea that all men will have salvation, these are reinventions of some very old Christian wheels. One wonders if the "bold" thinkers of the 19th century were aware that they were on to nothing really new.

Matt Huisman said...

Evolutionary advancement implies improved reproductive capability, something that UUism (or either of the individucal Uisms) has never - despite the removal of all those unreasonable aspects of orthodoxy - been quite able to manage.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Here are three comments from Positive Liberty on the duplicate post over there.

# Chuckon 02 Oct 2008 at 7:15 pm edit this

While some UU congregations, arguably, adhere to a somewhat more traditional Christian-oriented unitarianism, I also don’t think that certain founders would be all that surprised that Unitarian Universalist churches have evolved to embrace religious synchretism. They might find a self-proclaimed Christian witch to be absurd (as I do), but on this blog you have pointed out that those founders who were theistic rationalists as well as others who were enthusiastic about Enlightenment ideals took the central tenets of most UU churches seriously: that all good religions worship the same God, that public morality is more important than individual atonement for sin, and that compassion is to be held above correct belief. To this, the Founders added that God watches over America, and they wrote that view into the national myth or civil religion, a nod to a forgivably narrow patriotism that most UUs do not emphasize (they are, after all, universalists). But, again, I think that Unitarian Univeralists are post-Christians and that their modern views, while not altogether shared by theistic rationalist founders, probably wouldn’t really shock them, either.
# Ronon 03 Oct 2008 at 8:07 am edit this

There’s a common mistake in suggesting that Unitarian Universalism is a set doctrine…forever cast in stone. More than any other religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism is a product of Enlightenment thinking which is, by nature, open, inclusive and questioning. UU is a dynamic, evolutionary religious tradition. Of course, in some ages and some corners we’ve been more or less so than others, but that’s the “legacy” of movement and ongoing reform that we share as Unitarian Universalists. It would be inaccurate to suggest that UU is a fixed set of beliefs, theological or otherwise. UU is more of a state of mind…a shared attitude or approach to religion than any set body of theology. That’s why we can be so open and syncretic in our treatment of specific personal belief and the right of individual conscience. It’s a different animal, and therefore all such attempts to fit it neatly into stereotypical boxes are bound to fail.
# Eric Alan Isaacsonon 03 Oct 2008 at 4:34 pm edit this

I concur with Ron. The defining characteristic of liberal religion in America has not been any particular theological doctrine, but an approach to religion that can unite people for whom spirituality includes a freedom of conscience that honors individual intellectual judgments and differences of opinion – differences of opinion that tend to divide people whose approach religion entails conforming to doctrines and creeds.

I question your conclusion, Jonathan, that the eighteenth-century Unitarians, such as the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley, were radically “different creatures” from those who worship today in Priestley’s Philadelphia church..

We should remember that when Dr. Priestley reached Philadelphia in 1796, the Rev. Elhanan Winchester, a Universalist minister and Trinitarian, lent Dr. Priestley his own church’s pulpit, inviting Priestley to advocate viewpoints with which Rev. Winchester emphatically disagreed. See e.g., Joseph Priestley, Unitarianism Explained and Defended, in a Discourse Delivered in the Church of the Universalists, at Philadelphia, 1796 (Philadelphia: John Thompson, 1796).

Thomas Brown explains in his 1826 book A History of the Origin and Progress of the Doctrine of Universal Salvation 325 n.* (Albany: Thomas Brown, 1826), that although both Dr. Priestley were Univeralists, they had very different ideas about when and how Universal Salvation would come about. Moreover, while “Dr. Priestley was a Unitarian Universalist,” his host Rev. “Winchester was a Trinitarian, but notwithstanding this difference in sentiment, they were intimate, and fellowshipped one another, as brethren; thus setting an example what all others should do.”

Priestley and Winchester united in religious fellowship even though they differed considerably in both christology and eschatology. And so it is today in the Unitarian Universalist congregations of both Priestley and Winchester, whose members approach religion in a remarkably similar fashion — emphasizing freedom in fellowship that readily embraces a wide difference of opinion in matters of theological doctrine.

Jonathan Rowe said...


I don't think I said "radically" different creatures just different creatures. I also believe, contra TVD, that the UUs ARE the heirs to American Founding theology (more than just the building owners). However, whether they are behaving as good inheritors, I'll leave up to debate. I personally don't have a problem with UU; but I understand why some more traditionally minded folks would.

Tom Van Dyke said...

According to its own literature, UUism is no longer necessarily "theistic," nor can we say that claims to witchery particularly "rational." I'm being as objective as possible here, not "traditional." I see no reason why Priestly, et al., would find a witch any more plausible than the Trinity.

As for the historic and theological continuity of UUism with the "Founding faiths"---or "theistic rationalism," which you seem to insist upon, Jon, I'm quite willing to examine all claims. I'm not disposed to question other people's religions as long as no direct truth claims are made for them on this blog. I wrote that I found Mormonism's "vicarious baptism" of the dead quite touching, and if they want to wear sacred underwear, that's no business of mine.

I have so far proceeded with kid gloves when Eric makes his claims on behalf of UUism. But when he makes socio-political claims and attaches them to the Founding Fathers, he gets the same scrutiny as I give Christian Nationists, to whom I find myself obliged not to give a free ride to, either.

And in my view, none of us should.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well the way I see the progression of Founding uu or theistic rationalism to the present version, the distinctive tie between the two is radical creedal indifference or "openness." The problem, as I see you [TVD] seeing it is that the UUs just became too damn open and creedally indifferent such that their creed which used to be devoutly theistic and rationalistic has now transmogrified into a question mark.

Tom Van Dyke said...

That's fair. I see in early unitarianism a philosophical rigor and skepticism, the exact opposite of UUism's current "anything goes" approach.