American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition

Back to the American Unitarian page

Apostles of the Immortal Good

Robert Jordan Ross

Newport Beach, California

 

A presentation made to the annual meeting of the American Unitarian Conference on 25 September 2004 at San Diego, California.

 

 
The Mission
Who are the Unitarians? What have they been? What shall they become? We know that our reality changes, and that our way of understanding transcendent reality also changes. These are not the same thing; but they influence one another and the sense and meaning of what is a Unitarian.
For the casual observer of Unitarians, either at cocktail parties, at worship or at political action events, the sense of what a Unitarian is is largely conditioned by who the observer is. For some, Unitarians are simply apostate Christians. Some others see them entirely in secular terms. They are for many the interesting but degenerate remnant of a biblically Christian group who once were faithful to scripture, and who are now a sometimes charming discussion group concerned with religious and political curiosities.  

For the purposes of this address, I should like to compose my initial thoughts around three hoary bits of humor. This is apposite to my previous comments, as these jokes are often what those casual observers outside of the current Unitarian experience may have remembered about Unitarians. And they are, too often perhaps, brief sketches by which Unitarians summarily describe themselves to others. And these tales I believe are also used, perhaps not benignly, as tools to seriously shift people’s perceptions of who Unitarians are. The first joke: Several Unitarians are walking along a road. They come to a fork. The sign pointing towards one direction reads: ‘This way to heaven.’ The other reads: ‘This way to a discussion group about heaven.’ All the Unitarians proceed to the discussion group. The second joke, sometimes attributed to that Universalist servant-leader of Unitarians, Thomas Starr King, defines the supposed differences between these two faith positions. “The Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned, and the Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them.” The third joke’s punch line states that the only time one will hear the words ‘Jesus Christ’ in a Unitarian church are when the Puerto Rican janitor stubs his toe.

A little exegesis here. The jokes are hoary. Had they been constructed today, it would perhaps have been a ‘chat room’, not a ‘road.’ And the topic, ‘heaven’, to be either experienced or discussed, reveals an uncomfortable reality. For humorous purposes perhaps, or to relate to old line Christians, the topic mentioned is ‘heaven.’ This is silly. Unitarians almost never discuss heaven these days, either amongst themselves or with strangers to the faith. Polyamory, yes. The dreadful states of mind of those who disagree with us politically, yes. The importance of a given political action group (which may have only 53 members) to the future of the republic or to world peace, yes. But not heaven. The joke then is disingenuous. It leads the casual inquirer to believe that ‘Unitarian’ refers to a religion, or at least to a religious stance. And it suggests that the Unitarian is only casually interested in the supreme religious reality—union or fellowship with God.
This first joke, then, marvelously serves its purpose. It diverts Christian believers, or those who might be inclined to become such, away from Unitarians. That is purposeful and it works. It also denies the Unitarians’ partly rejected Calvinist heritage of irresistible grace. They make a simple decision about their religious nature (this road or that one). They are not elected by God [some Calvinists would gleefully agree], nor, as is fashionable today are they even ‘oriented’ by nature to God. They are ‘free to choose,’ ultra-Arminians, so much so that the reality and power of the Holy Spirit is utterly absent among Unitarians—according to the joke. And this part of the joke also serves its purpose well. That the work of God is not present among Unitarians is in the subtext of the message. That communicates very clearly.
The second joke reinforces some of these same ideas, the absence of an active God, of the Holy Spirit, of grace, at least among the Unitarians. Between themselves and the Universalists they are perceived in this joke to be the dominant group, even presuming to tell God what’s what. As such they are the group that shall carry the weight and influence between these two given faith positions, Unitarian and Universalist.
The third joke clearly tells the hearer that Unitarians are not Christians, nor even curious about, respectful of, nor studious about, our Lord Jesus Christ. It also introduces another important element. ‘We are white and upper middle class. And we like it that way.’ As perhaps one of the two whitest religious groups in the United States, they would not cheerfully tell this joke unless they were at least unconsciously pleased to reinforce this picture.
A side note: A few months ago Garrison Keillor was hosting a marathon show on Public Radio. He repeatedly asked for some new Unitarian jokes, stating that all the ones being called in to him were old. It took him over six hours to get just one new Unitarian joke. The point of this? That what Unitarians tell about themselves has not changed because it works. It works to describe them and to reinforce amongst the ‘heathen’ who they clearly are.
My reading on the history and sociology of Unitarians leads me to believe that these jokes are generally descriptive of the normative Unitarian stance within their non-confessional association of congregations. This is very important. If one hopes to influence the direction of a social community that has had at its heart, to some extent, a faith position which is now actively being censored and is partly obliterated, one must, of course, focus on the dynamics of that social community. You cannot simply focus on the faith position, as if the marketplace of ideas were supremely open within that clamorous concatenation of competing conjectures. It is not open. It is like a river flowing towards the sea. And the tumultuous waters pass through weirs that are designed to extract the fish. (Metaphor intended.) Most of the fish (the Christians) being thus absent from the flow of the river, the market for Biblical faith is minimized, and also, in many sad ways, trivialized.  
In order to be a dominant or the dominant influence in such a fluid community, one must either have the political skill which the Democratic Leadership Conference exerted over a number of years and which allowed it to redirect and dominate its party, or the consummate will to take over the denomination which the fundamentalists had within the Southern Baptist Convention in that decades-long struggle, or the witty arrogance and subversive style that several groups have used to influence Unitarian and Universalist fashions in the past century.  
But none of these are likely to work to the benefit of supporters of the American Unitarian Conference. The first reason is typified by these jokes. The jokes describe Unitarians as neither committed to a core group position, nor worshipful, nor often lacking in gravitas—characteristics that each of the aforementioned movements relied upon to do their work amongst Democrats, Southern Baptists and recent Unitarians and Universalists.
These ‘takeover’ methods will not work because firstly the AUC perceives itself to be avoiding a core position (e.g. Unitarian or Arian or Socinian Christianity, or perhaps even Christianity as such) to which you would subscribe as a body. It is also perhaps too individualistic to stage a systematic and disciplined takeover of a religious corporation. And it is also filled with more gravitas, respect and consideration than many of those who danced through the midst of the AUA, commanding many earlier Unitarian allegiances, such as some of the humanists, the extended family movement, those who managed to convince three generations that the Bible is, at best, a compendium of quaint and sometimes useful lessons based on legend, the false situation ethicists who threw aside Joseph Fletcher’s anchor of Christ, and the second generation of open marriage advocates — who discarded all boundaries.
We are attempting, in a worthy and effective fashion, to revive an early 19th century American anti-Calvinist form of Unitarianism using three announced principles, faith, freedom and reason as our pillars.  As we grow in maturity, we are adding more contemporary expressions of Unitarian thought and faith to the good list of mostly 19th century expressions available in print and on-line at http//:www.americanunitarian.org.
We are not likely to replicate these aforementioned instances of takeovers. We are also not likely to win the hearts and minds of the present generation of Unitarians and Universalists. The reason for that is implied in what I have previously suggested. The fish have been captured in the weirs. Our natural market is continuously being dissuaded from entering the present mix of Unitarians and Universalists by the jokes, which clearly reflect what most people would encounter in UU congregations. And the overwhelmingly good-natured and thoughtful people who are now members of UU congregations are perfectly happy to see you enjoy your freely chosen, not God-inspired, but freely chosen, point of view, for that is how they have been taught to see all that we do, that, not God, but the freely chosen point of view is the center of the faith. But these good people are a group largely self-selected to be people who have no interest in adopting Unitarian Christianity. Their hearts and minds are already spoken for. They have pledged themselves to a less godly version of the Lover of Souls, one who has 7 principles, not 10 commandments, to wrestle with, a process wherein a ‘spirit’ promises ‘growth,’ not, as Mr. Channing wrote, a religion which promises “redemption”.   

Our visible and committed Unitarian presence, with its historical memory, and with our dissemination of documents and records of the past, is a worthy and helpful work. Never, because of our small numbers, should we underestimate its value.  

But ours is not a movement now capable of driving towards fundamental change within the Unitarian Universalist congregations, nor of growing a significant constituency within them.

Why not? Firstly, are we God-centered or God-driven? That would imply, no matter how much we may protest, a single-minded point of view. And that happens to be mostly true, I think. For the most open-minded of God’s household still know how to draw, with confidence, their boundaries. And there are few places within the Unitarian Universalist Association today where that is encouraged.
Secondly, can we speak positively? To the extent that we do so on religious matters, we speak a language out of fashion. Members of Association churches still use a great deal of negative language to describe their faith positions (what they don’t believe in). Our positive words may well confuse and alarm them.
Thirdly, if we focus on the Unitarian Universalist Association, can we avoid being as reactive to the UUA as the early Unitarians were reactive towards New England’s brand of Calvinist congregationalism. That helped cripple them. (As did perhaps also too easy a position on membership. But that’s another story.)
You can see that what I’m leading up to is that our mission needs to be, as much as possible, in terms of who we are at present, one that does not have as its primary goal in some way dominating the UUA.  
 
Some Tools Available  
In the process of moving towards a consistent and whole Unitarian Christianity, the nature of faith and of the faith transmitted from one generation to another, from believer to believer, from the church to the world, needs clarification and organization. The classic word for this is ‘dogma.’ Dogma refers to the organized understandings that can be taught and learned. In practice, all dogma is flexible and changing. But the word dogma became a byword for evil to the Enlightenment Christians because of the fact that Church dogma had been made a state crime, and thus serious deviation from it could result in confiscation of property, transportation, imprisonment or worse. That this is no longer the case should not blind us to the need for organizing a picture of God’s realities, as we can best understand them, that we can use to transmit our faith, and also as a basis for discussion of our faith. We should not be trapped by an 18th century reactive definition of dogma. Without dogma as organized thought we have no common language, nor a language that allows us to communicate with other Christians.
A serious Unitarian theology that wishes to assert its Christianity must also deal—in what is likely to be a century-long process—with the aspects of Christian humanism and religious liberalism and freedom that have had a tendency to move religion out of the Unitarian picture. Since Erasmus, Christian humanism has been identified with scholarly skepticism and a somewhat cavalier attitude towards the holy. It has also been, perhaps as a consequence of its lack of enthusiasm for absolutes, more conservative and more adaptive to the political scene as it was to be found. Concomitantly, humanism has been committed to a rational disposition, “lacking in revolutionary aggressiveness,” as Paul Tillich puts it. And all humanism, Christian and otherwise, has focused on education as the prime force in the development of the individual. The almost complete lack of prayer life and spiritual formation programs among Unitarians over the years echoes this. It is perhaps also noteworthy that education lends itself more easily to state control of people than does the development of a God-centered spiritual and prayer life.  

Freedom is a tool that we rightly prize. But it is a tool. A tool is to be wielded, intelligently, to achieve a goal. Mark Twain once wrote, as I recall, that a man who has a hammer is constantly looking for a nail. Freedom can be like that. From the time we’re told to go to bed as little children, to the point where we can’t burn leaves in our driveway anymore, to the employment application that says at the age of 78 we can’t get a job as a test pilot, we want our freedom. When it becomes obsessive, however, it becomes an urge that also includes our faith.  No one can tell us, or perhaps even advise us, what to believe or what to think or what to do. In the end, among people really consumed with this extreme freedom, there seems to be a tendency to see the activity of God as nonexistent. Then the idea of deism becomes very attractive. God has done his thing. Now let him go away and let us get on with running the world. This is something Unitarians need to think about.

Religious liberalism has brought into Unitarian thought two great and fascinating issues, among many others of consequence, which still dominate Unitarian Christian thinking. One of these is the quest for the historical Jesus. Now, theologies do center on God, but when the prime focus of one’s understanding of God’s Messiah, Jesus—at a minimal description the lens through which we see God—is investigated much the same way as the quest for Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ (or gentleman as it may turn out to be), then burrowing about it in papyrus scrolls and ossuaries and the recollections of Roman dignitaries reduces the nature of the Son of God, the Christ who is the hinge of history and the door to our salvation, the mediator between ourselves and our God—this I say reduces him to being a confused young Jewish man who was trying to figure out the simple question: “So, what’s going on?” The second important consequence of religious liberalism was, and is, the tendency of people exposed to this approach to focus strongly on what they often call “the religion of Jesus,” namely, his moral teachings. Inasmuch as these are identical on every count with positions to be found in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Covenant or Testament, they provide no basis for a new religion. They also tend to lead to a moralism, devoid of any sense of grace, where salvation is a matter of keeping tabs on oneself and on one’s neighbor, and one’s political institutions, to see that all things are done rightly.
Christian faith is justly interested in these elements of history and teaching, but it cannot be built upon them. An interesting example of the problem of being excessively rational can be found in the book, French Rational Religions of the Nineteenth Century.  It contains marvelously interesting stories of dozens of religions founded on reason. All died. Reason can and ought to be rightly used in Christian theology, in Bible study, in our deliberations in congregations, but set alone by itself, with no anchor, it flies adrift and causes us to violate one of Jesus’s prime precepts: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Several years ago, I was at Christmas Eve worship at one of our most numerically strong Unitarian churches. The sermon was devoted in part to explaining to the congregation how the mother of the Buddha, Prince Gautama, became pregnant. She dreamed of an elephant who caused her to conceive. Perhaps this was supposed to be Ganesha. Other stories of this nature took up 90% of the sermon. Is there nothing new under the sun? These stories mimicked the attacks on Christians by Celsus in his work, True Discourse, which he wrote in A.D. 177. Interesting history? Yes! Is this feeding our Lord’s sheep on Christmas Eve? No.
You see, if our primary goal is not to be in some way dominating the UUA, through marketing perhaps, then we can help discover what our goal is by first clarifying our Unitarian Christianity and freeing it from some of its excesses and meanderings down unprofitable or unworthy byways.
 
The Field is The World  

Now I must come to the point of this presentation. The point is not that we must gain awareness of how humor reveals some home truths about Unitarians. Nor is my point to surface some possible directions for an aware and/or militant Unitarian cohort to, so to speak, recapture the flag. My point is to ask if a faithful and strong, focused and visible Unitarian Christian people can awaken and inspire first a lively, that is, Spirit-filled, American and Canadian Christian faith, then perhaps one throughout the English speaking world, and then the world beyond that.

The categories of a visible and practiced faith, and a Spirit-filled one, are not, apart from examples in political life, ones which emerge strongly from American Unitarian history. But if we are not to be culture-bound to New England’s historic culture, this faith must be able to be heard and be heartfelt by people who share neither New England’s family lineages nor that region’s commercial, industrial and academic heritage, nor even our American Unitarian  heritage. It must transcend these things.
When C. S. Lewis wrote his works, he did not plump for the Church of England, but for God, made known in Christ. As Billy Graham preaches, though everyone knows him to be an ardent Southern Baptist, his message was never one for those churches alone, but for a saving knowledge and love of God. Unitarians, as well, must have a message that has internal power, must not restrict themselves to fiddling with what some see as a runaway Association, but must bring a vision of the Kingdom of God to people who yearn for it, a knowledge of God to those who grasp after it, a love of God to all who pray for this, and a love of their neighbor which flows from these three realities, and not from either a primary or exclusive focus on the neighbor, or his polis, to the exclusion of God.
We are not tasked with the job of being only teachers, who bring facts to people. We are not asked to be only disciples, who hold the faith deeply and dearly within us. We are called to be like the apostles: messengers or ambassadors of the most high God, of whom we have direct knowledge, not second- or third-hand knowledge. We are called to bring good news of an immortal good, not news of a transient, culturally determined metaphysic. We are called to do this, not alone to facilitate discussion of ideas, but in order to allow the Holy Spirit to work in people according to the purposes of God, that they may be by grace regenerated and exalted (Channing’s words) and be found to be, by this same grace, exemplars of that immortal good, and, themselves, servants of it.
An example: after you have tasted baklava and seen that it is good, you may then look at recipes, compare cooks, argue about pastry shops that sell it, et trifling cetera, but if you have not tasted it, all that discussion is hollow. “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” calls the Psalmist (34:08 RSV). When you have tasted, and known, then you are able to be like that psalmist.
The Unitarian Christian is not called to be an archivist or museum keeper. S/he is called to be a faithful witness, in the language of the Bible, “members of the household of God”(Eph 2:19 RSV). What shall we become?  “evangelists, .... prophets, pastors, teachers, to equip God’s people for work in his service, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11b,12 REB). Who have we been? Like “men of Athens” (Acts 17:22b REB), “groping after [God]” “in the hope that...they may find him; though indeed he is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move, in him we exist; as some of [their] own poets have said, ‘We are also his offspring’”  (Acts 17:27, 28). Or, to use Mr. Channing’s words about who we shall be: “He will overturn, and overturn, and overturn the strongholds of spiritual usurpation, until He shall come whose right it is to rule the minds of men; that the conspiracy of ages against the liberty of Christians may be brought to an end; that the servile assent so long yielded to human creeds may give place to honest and devout inquiry into the Scriptures; and that Christianity, thus purified from error, may put forth its almighty energy, and prove itself, by its ennobling influence on the mind, to be indeed ‘the power of God unto salvation’” [“Unitarian Christianity,” 1819, last paragraph].
I shall close now with a quotation by someone I know only from the internet: Anna Hall.  

"Once I stopped navel-gazing, I saw the Spirit drive up on a motorcycle. She roared up loudly and said 'Child, you talk too much. Do you want to stand here having intellectual conversation or do you want to take a ride?'"                                    

Or, as Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

 


© 2004 American Unitarian Conference