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An Open Letter to Twenty-first Century Unitarians

John W. Gaston III


When I first joined the Unitarian Church in the mid-1950s, the American pulpits were alive with intellectual ferment, an ebullition that actually mattered to the congregation. Discussion abounded about such philosophers as Ayn Rand and her Objectivist philosophy. Ministers discussed the work of the neo-reformed theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and liberal thinkers such as Paul Tillich, and the Niebuhr brothers. The work of the Episcopal Bishop Pike was reeled-in and dissected. Touched upon were topics about immanence and transcendence, historical process, the mind-body (dualist) problem, and the metaphysical-existentialist questions about reality, purpose, and will. Of all the American religions, the Unitarian Church was the most stimulating place in which one could be; it was an intoxicating and heady affair. But that time was more than fifty-years ago. What happened to the Unitarian clergy I knew who could analyze the postulates of Harvard's Harvey Cox and Paul Tillich, or to the parishioners who cared about such things? Is the Unitarian clergy today still writing only sociological tracts about the underprivileged, the gender-challenged, and the socially dispossessed, or writing about problems in the work place, which appear to be more phylo-genetic than behavioral? Is anything intellectually interesting happening in the Unitarian Church of the twenty-first century which might engage the mind and the soul? In a religion that has dumbed-down the hymnal, the service, and the music, in what sanctuary can one still hear a sermon about Arius, Faustus Socinus, Bishop John Chrysostum, James Freeman, (or James Freeman Clarke, for that matter), hear a Mendelssohn Oratorio, or an original Daniel Pinkham chamber work, or a choral work by Unitarian churchgoer, Randall Thompson?

What happened to the Unitarian Church I joined?  The one I remember had ministers who could give disquisitions on the relationship of  liberation theology to the paradigm of Teilhard de Chardins progressivism, or discuss Tillich's "Ground of Being" in contrast to Platos (Socrates?) daemon, or evaluate a liberal Christian's response to Heideggers statement the world is what I live through, or perhaps contrast the liberal churchgoer's response to Ayn Rand's excoriation of the concept of duty or altruism, versus her virtue of selfishness, or weigh the moral equivalency of the phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty and Hans-Georg Gadamer, or even compare Greek and Hebrew thought in relation to time and space in the Old and New Testaments.  Over a year ago,  prior to the Sunday service, I asked a friend of mine, now pastor of a large east coast Unitarian church, and Harvard trained, what recent figure Unitarians could claim who was as distinguished as the Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick? She could not reply; yet, to my amazement, she mentioned Fosdick by name in her subsequent, prepared text.  Irony does exist outside of literature.

Where are our Karl Rahners, our Rudolf Bultmanns, or our Wolfhart Pannenbergs?  Does anyone in Unitarianism remember systematic theology or meaningful liturgy? Accordingly, I fondly recall a sermon in the mid-1960s by the distinguished Unitarian minister, James Madison Barr, who remarked that our clergy had forsaken their pulpits for social protest, while abrogating their mission to administer to the entreating soul.  He remarked that when every person had two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage, the core questions about life and its meaning would still remain unanswered, and there would be no one left in our pulpits to hear the pleas of those who sought answers about them.  I believe his thirty-six year-old prophesy has come true, at least in most of the UU Churches and fellowships I  visit (almost one-hundred in forty-five years).  A few New England Unitarian ministers are still concerned with soteriology, eschatology and their  gravitas to the seeking Christian, Theist, or Deist; nevertheless, in Unitarianism many feed the body, but few feed the spirit.

My question to you as a twenty-first century Unitarian is what happened to the Unitarian Church? Is there any intellectual or scholarly integrity left within the American Unitarianism I encountered in my youth? Why should a Unitarian Christian, Theist, or Deist, remain within such a religion manqué, which is a festering cauldron of cultural relativism, collectivist conformity, and which freely demonstrates an anti-God prejudice as well as an anti-intellectual bias? What is to be done if twenty-first century Unitarianism is to survive its secular and cognitive drift, and if its ministry is to give meaning to souls longing for solace and certitude?

© 2002 American Unitarian Conference