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Promoting Monotheism in the American Unitarian Tradition

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A Reply to ‘An Open Letter to Twenty-first Century Unitarians’*

Rev. Jonathan Devlin, MA, STB, DD, PhD


People will be drawn to a religion for various reasons. Some may seek food for thought. Others may seek food for the soul. When I first independently sought out a Unitarian congregation at the age of 14, I was seeking the latter. The former was readily available to me through my private readings of classical philosophy, theology, history, and the like. When I started college a year later, my college classes and discussions with other students and faculty were sufficient to satisfy my thirst for intellectual stimulation. However, I still felt the need for spiritual meaning and fellowship. And, I had already learned, through my own personal experience, that intellectual discussions did not satisfy my spiritual hunger; that, to paraphrase Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘books provide a bloodless life.’

Over the years, I continued with my secular studies, but always felt the emptiness of a soul deprived of spiritual fellowship. I decided to enter the ministry, but upon my reentry to a Unitarian Universalist congregation some twenty years later, I found little spiritual comfort in an environment that had become a center for social activism rather than spiritual growth.

Along my path I’ve met many people, from many faith backgrounds; people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and of all personal persuasions. One thing, which made itself obvious to me, was that people were searching for personal meaning; for some idea of where they fit into the cosmic plan. Most importantly, they were searching for a source of strength to carry them through the difficult situations that each one of us is called upon to face at some time in our lives. For in the final analysis, we are all eventually forced by circumstances to become Job – even if only for a short time.

Among all the people I’ve met, in nearly every religious and spiritual milieu in which I’ve studied and worked, I’ve met very few who were there for intellectual stimulation. Quite honestly, I have found that most people don’t care to distinguish between the fine points of dissention among two or more theologians or Christian apologists. Such issues do not provide what the majority of people so sorely need. While there may be some who would find such discussions interesting, it does not negate the fact that systematic theology does not, and never was intended to minister to the human soul.

If we review the historical development of systematic theology, particularly in its early formative period, we learn that there was a definite agenda in its formulation. First of all, we must realize that theology, as an academic pursuit, was based squarely on the intellectual heritage of classical Greek philosophy. The essential tenets of the earliest theologians, the process of deductive logic used to support their propositions, etc., were all borrowed from the classical Greeks – most notably, Plato.

In contrast, the Hebrews, whom the early gentile Christians saw themselves as supplanting, never endeavored to create a systematic explanation of God, of the soul, of faith, or any other subject that has become the province of theology. In fact, Brueggemann, in his Theology of the Old Testament, asserts that biblical scholars and theologians are hard pressed to find any sort of systematic theological statements in the Hebrew Bible. If any such statement does exist, it was created by Christian theologians through painstaking exegesis, and even so will inevitably lack any sense of the immediacy and immanence the ancient Hebrews felt in their relationship with God.

The ancient Hebrews had no word for religion; no word for theology. The closest approximation is the Hebrew word, Da’at, which was derived from the Persian, and was used, in ancient Persian texts, in reference to an edict of the King. The King’s da’at was the final word in all things. The Jews, having no such word of their own, borrowed this from the Persians during their exile, when they first attempted, unsuccessfully, to formalize the essential tenets of their faith. It then came to mean the da’at, or the way, of Israel, which primarily consisted of following the laws delineated in the Pentateuch, and of worshiping only the one God of Israel.

The newly formed Nazarene faith underwent a metamorphosis when it fell into the hands of the gentile world: The Greeks and Romans who had already been steeped in the methods and intellectual corpus of classical Greek philosophy. Mistranslations and misinterpretations of earlier Hebrew scripture had become items of faith, yet remained inconsistent in relation to their Hebrew origins. This necessitated complex and detailed explanations to justify the new creeds that were coming into official acceptance. Without such justifications, the new religion would probably have fallen into a form more reminiscent of the earlier paganism of the Greco-Roman world, or what would have been deemed worse for a historically anti-Semitic culture, into the Judaic form from which it sprung. To the rescue came Greek philosophy in the clothing of theology.

Through the skilled use of logic, any argument could be supported and "proven." The ability to prove any hypothesis was limited only by the prowess of the philosopher in his use of the formulae of logic. Thus, these techniques became the preferred method by which articles of faith could be proven as correct, indeed, as the only correct interpretations, regardless of how far afield they fell from their original Hebrew and Nazarene contexts. Yet, since these philosophic devices were based on incorrect interpretations of scripture, it also became necessary to adopt a fundamentalist approach to the interpretation of scripture itself. This legacy remains, even today, among the "religious right," which still uses biblical "proof texts" and traditional theological arguments to insulate itself even against the discoveries of empirical science, which can be tested and reaffirmed again and again.

To be certain, theology is an enterprise of the mind. It exists independently of any individually perceived presence of, or relationship to God. Any survey of contemporary ministers, otherwise well-versed in theology, will verify that it is entirely possible to have a solid grounding in systematic theology and yet to not have any sense of being in a relationship with God, indeed, to not even believe in God! If theology cannot provide even those well versed in it with a sense of spiritual meaning, how can it be expected to do so for the laity?

It is my assertion that precisely because Unitarianism was so steeped in the intellectual process for so many years, it was inevitable that it would become the spiritually vacuous, "socially conscious" entity that it did. It was inevitable because there is a profound difference between engaging in intellectual discourse about God, and engaging in an active relationship with God.

When a person has lost a loved one, it is of little use to hand them a copy of Plato’s Republic, or Augustine’s Confessions. It is about as useful as handing a person suffering from major depression a copy of Freud’s Society and its Discontents, and expecting that a cure will thereby be effected! As Jesus said, ‘what man is there among you who, if his son asked him for a fish would hand to him a serpent?’ And, yet, a purely cerebral, intellectual, theoretical approach to religion, and spirit is of little more value than Jesus’ proverbial serpent.

What people want, and of course I am speaking for the "average person," and claim the ability to do so because I, too, am the average person," is fellowship with others who together seek to better understand the exigencies of life. They seek fellowship with a community of other human beings, for the purpose of mutual support and nurturance. They seek to mark the important events of their lives through life-cycle rituals which are designed to convey a sense of awe; a connection with mysterium tremendum (as Rudolph Otto called it). And, as Rudolph Otto so aptly observed, the religious experience is one which defies rational explanation – it is numinous. The religious experience, in its purest sense, is an emotional experience. It is, as William James pointed out, impossible to define using the tools of language, and any attempt to do so immediately destroys the quality of the experience.

If we denigrate the value of the religious experience, then we might as well cease to be religious; to cease worship. If all the human soul required for sustenance was intellectual discourse, there would be no need for churches; no need for prayer. The universities would be sufficient – as they have come to be to secular humanists and left-wing social activists. The church must be the repository of the numinous; of the experience of the mysterium tremendum. Otherwise the church merely evolves into a place to meet and sign petitions for social reform – and I think that describes most UU congregations nowadays.

Any anti-God bias, which exists within the UU movement of today, finds its justification in intellectual discourse, or possibly the pseudo-intellectual discourse characteristic of the ‘new left.’ If Unitarianism is to survive its "secular and cognitive drift," then its ministers must "…give meaning to souls longing for solace and certitude." That meaning is not going to be found in systematic theology – a theology created in defense of Trinitarian religion, in direct opposition to its Unitarian, monotheistic origins. Obviously, this has already been tried and has failed. In the final analysis, solace and certitude comes through faith in God. God is made known to the soul alone. The soul is not a theologian, and never can be!

*John W. Gaston, III, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2002, p. 10.

© 2002 American Unitarian Conference