What You Believe Matters
Harvey Cox, a prominent Protestant theologian and a professor at Harvard Divinity School from 1969 to 2009, said that Unitarian Universalism was “thick on ethics, but thin on theology.” Others in regard to Unitarian Universalism have put it more directly by quoting Gertrude Stein: “There is no there, there.” This kind of critique prompted the UUA’s Commission on Appraisal to work for four years on the topic of theology. The result was their report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity (May 2005). In the report they noted, “One fact has become clear in the course of our conversations with UUs concerning the issue of theology: With rare exceptions, conversations about beliefs and theology are not regular features of our congregational life.”
The Touchstones Project was created to facilitate theological reflection as Unitarian Universalist congregations participate in the work of constructive theology.
Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Gilbert wrote, “if we are living, breathing, hurting, laughing, crying, questing human beings, it is impossible not to be theologians.” Anthony Robinson stated, “Theological reflection is a way to align what we believe with who we are. Such reflection helps a congregation preach what it practices, and practice what it preaches. … We neglect the responsible use of theology at our own peril.”
While the traditional definition of theology is the study of God, Gilbert suggests that it can also mean a “field of study, thought, and analysis that discusses religious truth.” The authors of Engaging Our Theological Diversity understood theology “to include the full range of religious and philosophical beliefs (not just theistic ones) and humans’ understanding of the meaning and purpose of life and of Ultimate Reality.”
Because theology in our tradition is not prescribed, it is incumbent upon each of us to build our own theology. By doing so, we create a more reliable internal compass that orients us to our true north. By doing so, we are better able to align our actions with our values. This is particularly important since Unitarian Universalism is largely a tradition of “come inners,” those who joined a congregation as an adult, with a minority of “born-inners,” those who grew up within our tradition.
The come-inners experience a religious community characterized by “freedom-from,” a freedom of belief that is both refreshing and liberating. This experience feels like the end of a journey, like a homecoming in which individuals who have been spiritual nomads find a religious oasis. For too many, they never imagined that such a place existed. (We do, indeed, manage to keep our light hidden under a bushel.) The image of arriving is so strong that it tends to obscure the more significant reality: beginning. Finding and joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation invites a transition in which we move beyond freedom-from to freedom-for. This is the larger promise of freedom of belief, not what we are freed from, but what we are freed for. Theological reflection is a process that assists us in determining what we believe. As Rev. Charles Stephens wrote, “I wish for you the thrill of knowing, who you are, where you stand, and why. Especially why.”
In Unitarian Universalism, theological reflection must be both an individual and congregational endeavor. As Unitarian Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams (1901-1994) reminded us, “each generation must anew win insight into the ambiguous nature of human existence and must give new relevance to moral and spiritual values.” This is the congregational imperative. At the individual level, D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) wrote, “A person has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together, adding to it, shaping it, and one's religion is never complete and final, it seems, but must always be undergoing modification.”
In his 2009 presentation about theology as part of UU University, the Rev. Dr. Galen Guengrich said, "Theology steps back from a certain kind of experience, religious experience and asks what makes it possible, and why is it transformative, or why is it destructive?" He offered seven questions for consideration.
How do we know what we most truly know?
What is the nature of existence and how do we fit into the picture?
What in the world is divine—if anything?
What is the uniquely human challenge?
What are the purpose of faith and the role of religion?
What does it mean to be a religious community?
How shall we live in order to transform ourselves and the world?
The Touchstones themes and related questions are selected to facilitate theological reflection through reading, in worship, participation in thoughtful discussions, and faith in action activities as congregations deal with matters of consequence.
Clarity through reflection.
Photo Credit: Dry Stone Wall, photo by Andrew, June 10, 2012, (CC BY 2.0),