Leigh Schmidt and Sally Promey have produced a new edited anthology of scholarly essays, aptly titled American Religious Liberalism. With essays by scholars such as Emily Mace, Matthew Hedstrom, Kathryn Lofton, Yaakov Ariel, the volume is sure to be of great interest to historians of American religion. This is just the latest in a flurry of recent publishing on liberal religion, as the forty-six page long (!) review section in the latest Journal of Unitarian Universalist History makes abundantly clear. And there’s more in the pipeline for this year, so expect a similarly impressive review section in the 2013 issue as well.
Category Archives: Book Notes
Mark Harris, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society and author of many books on Unitarian-Universalist subjects, has a new co-written (with Andrea Greenwood) volume coming out next month from Cambridge University Press. An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions is the latest offering in the long-running Introduction to Religion series. While details will have to wait until the book is released, it is clear that Greenwood and Harris situation Unitarian-Universalism as a global religion, with the United States just one (important) site for the religion’s development. Here is the table of contents:
1. Liberal religion and the foundations of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths
2. The European background
3. Great Britain
4. Early America
5. Unitarians and Universalists in the Republic
6. A religion for one world
10. Science and ecology
11. Architecture, music and the arts
12. Education, welfare and human rights
13. Unitarian Universalism in the 21st century.
Harris has produced many fine books worth checking out, most recently the slim but important Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History. He also wrote the massive reference volume Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (hint: available far cheaper in the paperback version with the title The A to Z of Unitarian Universalism).
Last post related to Rodney Stark and Roger Finke’s Acts of Faith. In this book, they set out a spectrum along which they locate various religions/denominations in the United States. The scale is:
This spectrum is interesting because it nuances the usual liberal-mainline-conservative categories used in describing American religion. The ultraliberal category (perhaps unsurprisingly) consists for the authors of: Unitarian-Universalist, Unity Church, Unity, Spiritualist, Reform Judaism, and many New Age groups. Liberal, meanwhile, consists of: United Methodist, United Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregationalist, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ. Note that they also consider “the most liberal” wings of the UCC and Episcopalians to belong in the ultraliberal category, as well as (hearkening back to ancient times) some early Christian Gnostic groups.
According to Stark and Finke:
Groups in this niche typically have little intergenerational stability and must recruit new members each generation. In part this seems to be because they serve as a sort of halfway house on the route to irreligion. And in part it is because, like most of the offspring of the irreligious, their children so often opt for a relatively high-tension faith. These groups also suffer from low levels of participation and an oversupply of free-riders and therefore tend not to be durable.
It is worth noting here that Rodney Stark is a conservative-leaning Christian and personally repelled by highly liberal religion, and thus his writing on the subject tends to be more venomous than necessary (and also evidences errors and misapprehensions at times). But he is also an extremely accomplished sociologist, and thus his voice is worth considering thoughtfully.
Quotes are from pages 210-211 of Acts of Faith.
More insights from sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke: discussing a new religious movement trying to break onto the scene, they note that “the only ones who joined were those whose interpersonal attachments to members overbalanced their attachments to nonmembers. In part this is because, as noted in Proposition 22, social networks make religious beliefs plausible and new social networks thereby make new religious beliefs plausible. In addition, social networks also reward people for conforming–in this case by converting. In effect, conversion is seldom about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and family members.”
In other words, people frequently switch into a different religion when they come to have more friends and family members inside that religion than in the one they currently belong to. This effect is related to distance, not just absolute numbers: when a person comes to have more local friends in a group, even though they may have a large number of friends and/or family who live much further away and are not part of the group, such a person is ripe for recruitment.
There are two implications for growth-minded UUs: first, radical hospitality that genuinely embraces newcomers and enfolds them into the community is likely to work as a strategy for increasing and strengthening the local congregation. Second, one’s own family and friends are the best possible potential future UUs. “Witnessing” to such folks in an appropriate manner can often pay off in terms of likelihood over time that they too will come into Unitarian-Universalism. The first implication relates to a charge often heard from UU pulpits; it is unclear precisely how often it is carried into action. The second implication is one rarely heard as a strong suggestion; personal aversion to religious evangelism (despite the fact that UUism is utterly unlike more dogmatic recruitment-oriented faiths and “witnessing” would never take the form of the more insistent and divisive strategies sometimes found in such religions) seems to prevent the robust attempt of this proven strategy.
Quote is from Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000: 117.
Why doesn’t Unitarian-Universalism grow at a faster pace? Top sociologists of religion Rodney Stark and Roger Finke think they know why:
All we are really saying is that, other things being equal, effort pays–that to the extent that organizations work harder, they are more successful. What could be more obvious? Moreover, at least in principle, the results of hard work are independent of theology. Thus, we are convinced that many of the declining American liberal denominations, for example, could grow if they could somehow get their current members to work at bringing in new members the way strict denominations do. Keep in mind that, although demand is smaller at the more liberal end of the spectrum than in the more moderate niches, liberal demand also is very underactivated. Hence, if liberal groups such as the Unitarians or Episcopalians could count on most members devoting four hours a month to door-to-door canvassing, they would grow a lot! The trouble is that these denominations are unable to motivate such efforts because in practice religious effort and theology are connected. Contrary to the complaints of disingenuous critics that our approach reduces religion to nothing but marketing, we have consistently argued that the inability of the liberal denominations to market themselves effectively is rooted in their doctrines–only vivid conceptions of an active and concerned supernatural can generate vigorous religious action.
Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000: 257-258.
David Throop started a thread on another blog about what books Unitarian-Universalist churches ought to have on their history bookshelves. The guidelines are that the cost shouldn’t be more than $200, there should be a clear focus on Unitarians/Universalists/Unitarian-Universalists, and the books ought to also be suitable for sale at a district event (which implies that they should be titles that are currently in print). It’s an excellent issue to raise, and herewith are the Transient and Permanent picks for the well-stocked, modestly-priced UU history bookshelf, designed to serve both newcomers to UU history and those who wish to dig more deeply:
Bumbaugh, David E. Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History. (Chicago: Meadville-Lombard Press, 2000). $15
Cassara, Ernest. Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997). $20
Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007). $15
Howe, Charles A. The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1993). $16
Morrison-Reed, Mark D. Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (Third Edition). (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994). $16
Parke, David B. The Epic of Unitarianism: Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998). $16
Ross, Warren R. The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001). $24
Scott, Rebecca, and Wayne B. Arnason. We Would Be One: A History of Unitarian Universalist Youth Movements. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2005). $15
Tucker, Cynthia Grant. Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930. (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2000). $20
Williams, George Huntston. American Universalism (Fourth Edition). (Boston: Skinner House Books and the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, 2002). $14
Wright, Conrad, ed. A Stream of Light: A Short History of American Unitarianism. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001). $14
Wright, Conrad. The Unitarian Controversy: Essays on American Unitarian History. (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994). $12
Notes: This list obviously is designed to serve American Unitarian-Universalists, as that is where Mr. Throop resides. European UUs should substitute Charles A. Howe’s For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1997)–$16–for Wright’s A Stream of Light; Canadians will have to go to the used book services in search of a copy of Phillip Hewett’s Unitarians in Canada (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1978). The list is comprised of a dozen books for a cost of $197, or $199 for Europeans. Happy reading!
Rev. Scott Wells, a well-known figure in modern Universalist circles, has debuted a new online journal dedicated to Universalism, Unitarianism, and other liberal Christianities. The Liberal Christian features two feature articles, an inaugrual editorial, and some interesting news notes.
In the first article, Making a Ministry, readers are treated to a description of Unitarian Ministries. This is a very interesting development of Unitarian spirituality outside of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The author is Scott Wells.
In Doing More with Less, Rev. Derek Parker takes the Swedenborgian Church as a model for what UUism might do in relation to its theological studies and training. Parker’s suggestions include downsizing the financially-at-risk Starr King School for the Ministry so that it runs more efficiently within the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley, perhaps as a unit at the Pacific School of Religion. This is probably the first time in a long, long time that the Swedenborgians (a small, liberal and mystical church) have been used as a model for larger denominations in North America–but that doesn’t mean their innovations should be ignored.
In Behold, I am making all things new, editor Scott Wells announces the purposes of The Liberal Christian, which he intends to publish on an approximately bi-monthly basis. His vision is that the journal will start modestly and grow in size and quality as new contributors add their voices to the mix. The Liberal Christian is published using a Creative Commons licesnse, an appropriately open model Rev. Wells has championed at his blog, Boy in the Bands, and elsewhere.
The news notes are admirably international, including tidbits from the United States, Great Britain, France, and Denmark.
All in all, a nice start for “another voice for Unitarians, Universalists, and kindred Christians.”
The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society has released the latest issue of its journal (volume XXXI, 2006-2007). The main article is by Rev. Raymond Hopkins, a retired UU minister, who was the first Executive Vice-President of the UUA and therefore the highest placed Universalist in the newly merged denomination. A witness and participant in history, Rev. Hopkins describes the process that led to merger, the administrations of the first two UUA presidents (Dana Greeley and Robert West), and the tumultuous, challenging, exciting early years of the UUA.
The second article is by Stephen Shoemaker, a Harvard instructor. Shoemaker discusses the Unitarian theological roots that drove Charles Eliot’s reforms at Harvard during his long turn of the century presidency. Eliot is a major figure in the history of American education, responsible for helping to move higher education in a secular direction. Nonetheless, as Shoemaker discusses, his actual motivations had a highly spiritual basis.
The issue also carries several short research notes, concerning a) the replacement of the Thomas Starr King statue with one of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. Capitol, b) the Universalism of 19th century Georgian humorist Joseph Gault, and c) early Transylvannian Unitarians and the Quran. Also, Joan Goodwin, a biographer, historian, and UU religious educator, receives an obituary.
The term “fundamentalist” appeared less than a century ago, in relation to the Christian publishing venture known as The Fundamentals. These were released as a series of pamphlets in the 1910s. They were designed to provide clear, intelligent, orthodox pronouncements on Protestant Christianity–specifically, they served as repudiations of liberal Protestantism, threatening scientific advancements (such as Darwinism), and Biblical higher criticism, and as reiterations of what was fundamental and therefore eternal to true Christianity. These widely disseminated pamphlets provided a name for the emerging wing of ultra-conservative American Protestantism, and “fundamentalism” is now synonymous with scriptural literalism, dogmatism, and determined supernaturalism both within and beyond the Christian religion. While The Fundamentals have in many ways been forgotten by contemporary culture, the influence of the movement they helped shape is undeniable.
Written by scholars, ministers, and laymen alike, The Fundamentals range rather widely in quality and coherency of argument. Many of the essays, however, are of surprisingly high quality, avoiding ad hominem attacks and demonstrating engagement with opposing material rather than simple dismissal. But regardless of the merits of particular essays, throughout all authors show certain similarities. First, the Bible is taken as the ultimate authority, as inspired by God, and as literally true. Second, conservative American Protestant doctrines are taken as plainly expressing the clear meaning of the Bible’s words, not as cultural traditions developed over time in a process of change and adjustment. Third, orthodox Protestant Christianity is presented as the only legitimate form of religion, as possessing answers to all possible questions and situations, and as a matter of utmost importance.
This last point seems to be the driving motivation behind The Fundamentals. More than anything else, The Fundamentals are concerned to position conservative Protestantism as clear, straightforward, authoritative, and solid. Opposing ideas are attacked precisely for lacking these qualities. Darwinism is objected to less because it supposedly demeans humanity or insults God (though these arguments are made), but primarily because it is a theory. Several authors take pains to point out its hypothetical nature, emphasizing over and over again that it is speculative, weak on details, and full of confusing contradictions. This contrasts with the robust confidence inspired by the complete and perfect system of conservative Christianity. In all of this there seems to be a fear of the modern age as relativistic and fraught with uncertainty. This probably connects too to the diminishing sense of power and relevance felt by conservative white Protestants, as immigration and incipient religious pluralism began to threaten their sense of entitlement in America. The Fundamentals appear to pronounce the permanent truth and relevance of orthodox Protestantism precisely when such permanence, truth, and relevance can no longer be taken for granted.
As such, they are quintessentially modern works, not representative of traditional Christianity. They are as tied to their time as the statements of the liberals they oppose. There is a tendency among liberals to dismiss fundamentalism as somehow a survival of ancient, ignorant days, irrelevant to the modern day and thus puzzling in its ability to cling to life. But this attitude overlooks how The Fundamentals, and the works that have followed in their wake, are attempts by contemporary Christians to grapple with the modern world and find answers. Naturally, the answers they come up with, even if they masquerade as ancient and unchanging, will be to some degree conditioned by and probably suited to the modern context.
Reading through works on Buddhism by 19th century Unitarians and their liberal religious kin is a humbling exercise. Their hermeneutical tunnel vision is at times painful to behold, particularly because it raises obvious doubts about our own understandings. The only consolation can be that in the modern academy we at least attempt a form of self consciousness and positioning. In comparison these pioneers of the American encounter with Buddhism didn’t merely wear tinted interpretive lenses–frankly, they often seem to have donned glasses made of lead.
The artist who originally crafted these glasses was Luther. Most 19th century essays and books by Unitarians that deal with Buddhism begin with fully formed a priori assumptions that are quintessentially Protestant in nature. The most obvious is that the Buddhism of the Buddha is the true Buddhism, the only authentic expression of the Buddhist impulse. Later developments in Buddhism are treated as degradations, whatever they may be. American Protestants of the 19th century were obsessed with the idea of returning to primitive Christianity, so it is little surprise that they likewise prefer what they imagine as primitive Buddhism.
Another prominent feature of these early writers is that they sought this primitive Buddhism exclusively via texts–the older the better–which conveniently can be appropriated and employed by Western scholars and critics. Again, there should be no surprises here–the Bible was the center of all Protestant religion, even the Unitarianism of the time. The result, of course, was that virtually nowhere in the Unitarian “encounter” with Buddhism were actual living Buddhists consulted. Buddhism was first constructed from Western readings of ancient manuscripts, and then interrogated using Protestant categories and concerns.
A third central feature of such essays that derives from Protestant, especially Unitarian, assumptions is their near universal respect for Buddha the man. Even the most vehement opponent concedes a certain grudging admiration for the reconstructed historical Buddha. But regardless of the level of appreciation shown, it all flows from a single source: esteem for the Buddha’s morality. The cosmology and complex of praxis that supports and flows from this morality is largely dismissed, but Buddha himself is spoken of almost as a little brother to Christ: pure, chaste, self-abnegating, kind, pacific. It’s just too bad he was such a pessimist, you can hear these writers saying, since it resulted in a soul-crushing nihilistic dream of escapist self-obliteration.
Buddhism for 19th century Unitarians and similar liberal Protestants really only came into focus when it was assimilated to previously understood phenomena. Of course the prevailing question was whether or not Buddhism is or is not like Christianity. But the most interesting thing to observe is when and how Buddhism is similar to what type of Christianity. When looking at Buddhist praxis, these commentators were quick to point out the parallels to Roman Catholicism, usually to Buddhism’s detriment. But when looking at philosophy or morality, Buddhism suddenly appears to them as a species of Protestantism, and their regard increases. However, even when Buddhism is being treated relatively sympathetically, there is a common anxiety about the number of Buddhist adherents in the modern world. Unscientific estimates range wildly in the texts–400 million seems to be a particular favorite–but all guesses include a certain alarm that a religion at once so familiar and yet so alien has captured such a large portion of the planet, and may even be poised to pounce upon America.
On a final note, there is the interesting question of Buddhist-related language that has now passed out of the American discourse on Buddhism. How different would our understanding of Buddhism be today if the once popular term “enfranchisement” had won out over “enlightenment,” or “sublime” had continued in the place of the four “noble” truths? Observing early alternative language for common Buddhist concepts partially reveals the value-laden and historically-situated nature of the very words we ourselves use today, even in academic discussions of Buddhism.