SEA CHANGES SEEN AS THEOLOGICAL
The real consequences of shifting social thought are illustrated in people’s lives, maybe never more that in the lives of ministers — who must respond to living people — or ministers in a denomination like Unitarian Universalism which has always been open to a specific layer of society especially concerned with educated people, often presumed to compose a socioeconomic class. When I was in high school (1953–57) a major consideration was a schism between science/math and the humanities. It may have grown from the moral crisis over the atomic bomb.
Advances of knowledge and dilemmas are always followed by changes in the more global stream of thought, as guided by the convictions of the time, like the idea that women “belonged” to humanities and “warlike” men needed the potency of science. But the events and the earlier overwhelming of Newtonian science, was significant for the UU population. On one side the idea of “God” as a big being the sky was gone, creating the category of non-theists. On the other side the capacity for destruction and the many preoccupying social effects of the war, prompted a new wave of concern for whole groups of people, as well as a burgeoning art scene. Mysticism was back.
In 1975 when I first found the Unitarian denomination, it was recovering from BAWA-BACA demands to be included but was not quite into the bruising feminist wave. Both movements seem to be from the humanities side of progress, but a strong strain of science-as-the-only-reality-and-protection persisted. By 1978 when I entered seminary, there was a new energizing of traditional supernaturally-based Xianity, which was soon challenged by Deconstruction, at the time only understood by people at Johns Hopkins. But Edward Said also visited campus. These things were not apparent to the ordinary Sunday or Friday attending person.
A heretical and defiant man in the class that came just after me was Davidson Loehr who tried to pull me into his circle. He mistook me. The faculty took him to task so he went over to the University of Chicago Div School, a fairly seamless transition, and he got his degree over there. (Meadville people already earned the U of C MA inside their M/L MDiv degree.) David was a brilliant pain-in-the-ass with many gifts and no discipline. He wrote and published in the “Journal of Liberal Religion” an article entitled “Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying.”
https://files.meadville.edu/files/resources/why-unitarian-universalism-is-dying.pdf It’s worth reading and discussing.
In it David’s claim was that the denomination is shrinking because it’s obsolete and boring and has tried to become political instead. I have observed myself that the UU has tried to identify with the Democratic party in a general vague way. Others as well as Loehr have pointed out that the mainstream Christian thinkers have gone stale, have omitted any entrance to the intense felt meanings of life. But they don’t identify politics as a solution or cause — rather they point to the amazing mind-blowing vividness of today’s science, which overwhelms past understandings.
David’s complaint is that the denomination went political. Mine is that theology was replaced with therapy and “pink” “caring” ministry. Both of us feel the loss of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” that is now alive in the dimension of the new science and technology that gives us direct contact, as in David Attenborough’s films, just as sensuous as factual.
Cultural conceit and a failure to achieve stature and meaning are the disastrous result of bad theological solutions. I left the ministry in 1988. David got thrown out about the same time. His vengeance was sharp, centered on the Enlightenment “principles” that were the dogma of the denomination. He called them the Seven Banalities, so obvious that they no longer had any impact. I speak of it as PBS theology, seeking irreproachability and rehearsing platitudes as though they were insight — and as David also says — congratulating people for being so perceptive and moral.
Whole categories of people differed in their struggling opinions. Where was justice, where was transcendence, where was passion? Where was the effective counter to the global mercantilism that has ended in corruption of nations?
I’m discussing these nebulousities in terms of individuals because it’s easier and more fun. The person who got caught in the hot seat over much of this was John Buehrens. Now he’s concentrating on UU history but from the Pacific Coast instead of from New England. That will be interesting. By now the denomination is filled with female clergy, many of them PoC.
I contacted Buehrens over archives, wanting to find a home for my materials about circuit-riding (82–85) as well as encouraging some historic subjects: Bond School for Indians; Milma Lappala, the “skirt minister” in Red Lodge; Clara Hodgin, the minister’s wife commemorated with a Tiffany stained glass window in the former Unitarian church in Helena; and Louis Duncan, the socialist Unitarian minister who was also the mayor of Butte. I’m not looking for research projects. I just want to mail out stuff so my inheritors don’t throw it away.
Following the example of post-post-modern science and thought, unnamed as a movement, I’m trying to stretch my mind as far as it will go. I agree with everything Loehr says, but it’s not enough. I agree with Buehrens or Rev Connie or Carol Hepokowski or — name others. But I want more.
Then this pandemic and global warming hit and the most elite and aloof of us watch India burn their dead, personally and directly. No nice coffins with wreaths on top that go on a conveyer belt through mysterious doors. No pretty quotes to assemble into a smorgasbord.
All the time that the religions were embattled in old arguments, some thinkers and doers were replacing rationality with experience, recovering the level of perception that has children working with blocks and clothespins in milk cartons, learning gravity and volume and boundaries. Their hands in the earth.
For example I’ve found the work of Tim Ingold in U of Aberdeen and others in his circle, a new place to start “way-faring” through thought.. The path is to go to the very nature of living beings and how they fit into existence, a process interacting with its ecosystem which is an aspect of the Earth itself. No more Newtonian or even Darwinian boxes with Latin labels. We’re out on the edge of Einstein, reaching for the edge of the cosmos in the birthplace of the galaxies. And also petting the cat.