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Liberal Christianity

Here is another chapter from my book about the theologies within Unitarian Universalism.  It describes the oldest of our theologies, Liberal Christianity.


Unitarian Universalist Christianity is the oldest of the main theologies of Unitarian Universalism. The historical roots of both Unitarianism and Universalism are firmly within Protestant Christianity. In fact, until late into the 20th Century, Unitarianism, Universalism, and, after the merger of the two denominations in 1961, Unitarian Universalism, would be listed in any dictionary of American religion as Protestant. This explains why most of our congregations are still called churches, why our clergy are called ministers, and why our gatherings are still worship services. Both Unitarianism and Universalism separated from mainstream American Protestantism in the late 1700s and early 1800s because of differences in their interpretation of the Christian Bible and of the Protestant theological tradition.

Unitarianism has its roots in Eastern Europe in the 1500s. Faustus Socinus in Poland and Francis David in Transylvania asserted that, “God is one.” This is the rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which asserts that God is in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The Unitarian assertion was that God is a unity and not a trinity. This meant that Jesus was not God, but a human being. The Unitarian idea became a part of the liberal position in a controversy within the Congregational churches of New England in the early 1900s. This liberal wing was to become known by the name Unitarian. In his famous Baltimore sermon of 1819, ‘Unitarian Christianity’, William Ellery Channing, presented the positions that define Liberal Christianity to this day within Unitarian Universalism. The first position is a non-literal interpretation of scripture. Our God-given reason is indispensible in reading the Bible. The second position Channing articulated was that God is one and not three. He next asserted that Jesus is a being separate from God. Channing stated as well that, in opposing the then prevalent Calvinist view, that human beings are not born depraved or evil, but are endowed by God with the ability to know and to do the good.

Universalism has its roots in England and America in the 1700s. The early Universalists asserted that God is too good to condemn any of his children to eternal punishment. They rejected that idea of an eternal hell with both Biblical and psychological arguments. Biblically speaking, the early Universalists argued that there was no warrant for the idea of eternal punishment in the Bible and that the very few verses which were held by their opponents to prove the doctrine of eternal punishment were far too ambiguous to warrant such a fearful doctrine. The psychological argument was that God is a loving parent and no parent could be so evil as to torture his offspring for eternity. If God is love, as the Bible asserts, hell is impossible. Instead of hell, the Universalist assertion is that God does not every give up on anybody. All will be saved. This doctrine is known as Universal Salvation and Liberal Christians today still hold to it.

Very soon after the establishment of Unitarianism and Universalism in America, Liberal Christianity was challenged as the central theological position by new movements in theology. Within a century Unitarian grew to include the Transcendentalist Nature Mystics and the Humanists. Later Earth Centered theology, Buddhism and Judaism would join Liberal Christianity as part of the Unitarian Universalist identity. Unitarian Universalism started as a movement within Protestant Christianity and grew to be more than Christian. But Liberal Christians are still a strong part of who we are and there are still many UUs who call themselves Christian.

Nothing drives a UU Christian crazy as much as the question, “How can you be a UU and still claim to be Christian?” This is a very insensitive question. They are tempted to answer, “Who gets to define Christianity? Are we to accept only the definitions of the most sectarian and exclusivist representatives of the Christian world? All Christians are not intolerant. The great majority of Christians are not fundamentalists. Not all Christians are super naturalists.” They are tempted to assert, “UU Christians do not believe that every word of the Bible is literally true. UU Christians are not sexist or homophobic and have the same commitment to equality as other UUs. UU Christians do not believe that Christianity is the only way to salvation or even the best way for everyone. Most UU Christians do not believe that Jesus was physically resurrected from the grave or that he will return to judge humanity and end time. UU Christians do not believe in the virgin birth. UU Christians do not believe in original sin. They do not believe that Jesus was God”

Unitarian Christians have as the center of their religious identity the life and teachings of a rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus, who lived and taught in Palestine in the early years of the Common Era and was executed by the Roman authorities because they felt threatened by his teachings. Unitarian Christianity strives to be the religion of Jesus, not the religion that developed later about Jesus. This religion about Jesus that later developed over many centuries would not have been recognized by the man himself, who was, after all, a good Jew and who would never have dreamed of starting a religion of his own. Unitarian Christians seek to live the teachings of this remarkable prophet and to follow his example of realized humanity. And because Jesus was one of us, a human being, we can strive to live by his example. Jesus taught us to stand with the poor and speak up for those who have no voice. His life teaches us to accept, respect and forgive all human beings regardless of group, class, ethnicity or social position. In the Sermon On The Mount there is a passage often mistranslated, “Be perfect, as your father in Heaven is perfect.” The actual translation is, “Be all inclusive, just like your father in Heaven.”

For many UU Christians the ritual of communion is a central part of their spiritual practice. Here the bread and wine are not the literal body and blood of Jesus. The ritual is a memorial to Jesus and a re-enactment of that original community of his followers. It represents the commitment to live as he lived, to love as he did and to grow in soul as did Jesus. Many also are greatly attracted to the private disciplines of Bible study, meditation and prayer.

Some UU Christians might be called Liberation Christians. For them, Jesus was one who worked for the spiritually, psychologically, physically, socially and economically oppressed. We need to follow his teaching and his example to help heal the brokenness of the world. Even though like most faiths with ancient roots, Christian scripture labors under the burden of male exclusive language and assumptions, Liberation Christians nevertheless assert that the Christian tradition still has a message of liberation for women. Jesus was remarkably egalitarian for his time. He taught women and had women disciples, and that was one of the reasons he earned the enmity of the religious establishment of his time. For Liberation Christians, the central event of the Hebrew Bible is the Exodus, where a people who were enslaved cast off their bondage and sought their own destiny and identity. For Liberation Christians, the central event of the New Testament is the resurrection, not seen as a literal resuscitation of a corpse, but instead is the symbol of how the power of love and justice always overcomes violence and oppression. Liberation Christianity is a world wide, ecumenical movement. Some if its great exemplars are Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu and Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Some UU Christians are what my colleague Thomas Wintle calls Questioning Christians. They are attracted by the figure of Jesus, curious about the Bible but still uncertain of how to put that together with a modern scientific world view.

Jesus main message was about the Kingdom of God. In his time, many of his fellows were expecting the realization of God’s plan and their own fulfillment at a future time when a liberator, a Messiah, would come. Jesus taught that that time was at already at hand. The love of God is within us and surrounds us if we would only let go of our fears enough to perceive it.

Was Jesus in any sense divine? Yes, I believe he was, but I believe that his divinity was a human divinity, one which is not beyond the reach of any of us. His resurrection was not a physical event but an event that is always happening; that happens every time a human being awakens from the death of conventional thinking, habitual living, and humdrum perception and recognizes what a rare and precious gift life is, with which we are obliged to do something worthy of the capacities with which we are endowed. When our eyes look upon the world in wonder, when our hearts truly feel compassion, when we realize that we are liberated from dead habit and are free to choose our lives in grateful response to the divine gift of existence, then the Christ consciousness looks, feels, sees and works through us much as it did through Jesus. There is, I believe, something of the divine which is constantly seeking to embody itself, to realize itself, through human life and history. I believe such figures as Jesus showed us this divinity, as did the Buddha and other great teachers. But we too can be the channels of this energy, both as individuals and as a total humanity. We are capable, as Jesus in his short life began to show us, of a great destiny.

6 comments (Add your own)

1. Cat wrote:
I really enjoyed reading this tonight. I remember hearing a similar sermon you gave in church. But it's nice to have it on the web where everyone can read it in case they missed that one. I think it would even be a great idea to tape some of the sermons and put them on the net for everyone to hear.

Mon, February 14, 2011 @ 8:00 PM

2. Ken Herman wrote:
This is a very concise, lucid, and welcome essay about Liberal Christianity and its place in UU history and practice. I appreciate the section on Liberation theology, because this is such an important aspect of populist Christianity (as opposed to institutional) in Central and South America. One aspect that could be stressed more is the radical quality of Jesus' teaching, especially regarding his approach to the authority of the Law (which was the core of Scripture as it was understood then) and the status of women and other oppressed members of his society.

Tue, February 15, 2011 @ 9:27 AM

3. Dave wrote:
Very well done. As one who lives in community where the local UU church is almost exclusively secular humanist, I find it very helpful and refreshing to hear this inclusive series from a UU minister. I personally regard UU not as a religion, but a way of thinking about religion that brings many religious perspectives together under one tent. It's nice to see an affirming expression of that view.

Tue, May 10, 2011 @ 10:25 AM

4. Zubair wrote:
Unitarians don't really have any gnrnveiog body or centralized authority, which makes sense considering what they are all about, and I have noticed that their levels of religiosity vary widely from congregation to congregation. Something to be aware of if you are seeking a community but not the god-stuff. But overall, they seem to be aimed at the hugely growing number of people who describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious, a group that seems relatively harmless on the surface, but still rubs me the wrong way. I don't believe in God, but I believe in . something. What does that mean?!? What is that something? I don't know, I just think there must be something. The slippery spiritual-but-not-religious crowd drives me nuts, and the idea of spending 2 hours with a roomful of them every Sunday sounds insufferable.

Mon, June 18, 2012 @ 12:38 AM

5. Roberto wrote:
1. What are your thoughts on when a peosrn's spiritual journey begins? Does one need to experience rebirth i.e. be aware of his/her spiritual side before the journey can begin? Can it be that the journey is happening from physical birth onward even though one is unaware of it?2. Now I understand why the teachings from Sunday school and church about becoming more Christ-like never really resonated or seemed more like platitudes. There was never any context for how or why. Now the context is more clear for me as I understand that the God-part lives within each of us, and when we come to recognize that we are each an endowed in the deepest part of our beings with that God-part we are irretrievably changed and cannot go back(wards). And the change is no longer a choice but a joyful commitment, however frustrating it may be at times.

Tue, June 19, 2012 @ 6:30 PM

6. Thomas Atwood wrote:
It's so refreshing to read this cogent and well-researched essay about Unitarian Universalists who claim a Christian identity. I was a member of First Church Jamaica Plain (Boston) during the ministry of Terry Burke (a Carl Scovel protege) before I moved to the West Coast. Only then did I discover that UUs with a Christian identity had some explaining to do in different UU cultures <;^)

As as Associate of the Westar Institute (Jesus Seminar) for over 20 years, I had the opportunity to give many presentations about the Historical Jesus in our Fellowship in Redwood City, California and other venues, including the Pacific Central District Assembly. This article reminds me of the caveat that Jesus Seminar convener Robert Funk repeated many times: "Beware of a Jesus who is congenial to you." If we ever embrace the human being Jesus, that changes everything.

Thu, January 28, 2016 @ 5:43 PM

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