What Are the Historical Rights and Responsibilities of a Religion of Converts?

Most attendees of Unitarian-Universalist churches are converts.  And if we take a longer historical perspective, the number of people whose families have been involved in Unitarianism or Universalism for 100-200 years is truly tiny, though not utterly nonexistent.  Compare this to people who are Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish: chances are good that their family has been part of their tradition for hundreds, even thousands of years.

In this situation, how much right do all these newer UUs have to claim the mantle of Unitarianism and/or Universalism?  Who are their real spiritual ancestors: Channing, Murray, Ballou, Emerson, or are their actual ancestors Christian and Jewish figures of the past?  Does conversion to UUism wipe away all the karma of generation after generation of Christianity/Judaism?  Do such converts no longer have any responsibility towards their former faiths, or the victims of their former faiths?  Do they take on the responsibility of the karma created by Unitarianism and Universalism, and owe debts to the victims of these religions that were racked up before they were born?

Unitarianism was organized congregationally, but almost no one in UUism today is descended from the people who put that system together.  Do modern UUs therefore owe it to these foreign fathers to maintain this system?  Why?  Can that change?  If UUs are not beholden to the religious ideas of the past, why are they rigidly responsible to the religious structures of by-gone days, created in earlier times?  Is the demand to hold on to structures an attempt to stave off the losses created by not holding on to historic theologies?

Does it matter what the Puritans were like, if only a portion of them ended up as Unitarians and almost none of their descendants are with us today?  Did the UUs continue a tradition in 1961, reboot, or start something altogether new?

When does someone gain the right to speak for UUism, especially in a historical sense?  Is it when Belief-o-matic suggests they’re 100% UU?  Is it when they start attending a UU church?  When they sign the book?  A year after signing?  Ten years?  Never?

Various open questions for a Wednesday morning.

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4 Comments

Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

4 responses to “What Are the Historical Rights and Responsibilities of a Religion of Converts?

  1. Hmm. Good questions, all. Pondering ….

  2. Dudley M Jones

    Who can speak for the UU movement? That is done at GA where we vote on statements. Of course we are all responsible for making the “elevator speech” when the situation arises.

    There probably are some other religions where practitioners have zero interest in the history of their religion, but I think it is unusual.

    Best wishes

    ps I personally think religious history is fascinating. “The Epic of Unitarianism” is especially good.

  3. The underlying and all-important question — on which Will’s musing implies some confusion — is: “converted to what”? As in, “to what are newcomers converted when they bring themselves into our flock?”

    J.D. Bowers, in his excellent new book, “Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in North America,” makes the point that Unitarianism in North America has two parents — the Puritan congregationalists of New England, who emphasized congregational harmony above all else, and hence tended to let theology get vague — and the highly theological scholarly Unitarians led by Joseph Priestley. The Puritans, as we all know, were all about the power of the congregation (enforced by Massachusetts and Connecticut law until for the first almost two hundred years.

    The theological Unitarians associated with Priestley (who recently turned 275) were proud to trace their scholarly line directly through the various debates in the Christian community, debates began even before the original Cross was fully erected, about whether Jesus was miraculous or human, messiah or rabbi.

    Although subverted for many centuries, as a spring might run underground where a meadow appears, this theological strand remains the core of what unites contemporary Unitarians and Universalists (who have had their own “unitarian controversies,” both in England and in North America). Yes, we today pay less attention to christology than did even the Puritans, but that, in fact, exemplies commitment to a certain kind of christology (humanist/historical as opposed to miraculous/messianic). We all witness resurrections and crucifixions, of course, all of us, all the time, but we do so as historical and human selves, not pointers to the one truth of Jesus. We tend to describe them, in other words, as specific events in documentable lives.

    This means that “heresy” is not in itself the answer. There are, in fact, many christian strains which lead people some place else entirely, without taking them out of the christian community. And before you get too upset, and start witnessing your faith in saviours like science and paganism and such, let me point out (as a certified scholar in both our own faith traditions and world religions more widely) that the principles which unite us can be, for the most part, traced directly to the teachings of Jesus. Individualism, conscience, marriage by choice — these do not have parallels from Buddha, Confucious, Sufiism, paganism — any of the hundred and one models we use for spiritual practice. They certainly bear no resemblance to the Hindu doctrines of karma, dharma and caste — no matter how much I personally prefer the metaphor of reincarnation above resurrection.

    A religion’s theology is a bit like the laws of the land: just because you’re ignorant of what it is doesn’t mean you get to contravene it. We have a wide continuum of ideas, and have occasionally stretched them even further. But just as most new Americans finds their dreams adequately described by the Declaration of Independence, so UUs would be pleased to know we have less to fear than we suspect by learning what it was our forebears bequeathed us.

  4. Maybe I was getting something different out of the questions, but at GA only the UUA’s voice is created and spoken by the delegate. The UU movement at large does not have a voice and no one can speak for it because it is an individualist-theology (yes, I made that up…but it stems from American “pull-yourself-up-do-your-own-thing” ideals). Unitarian Universalism is what the individual wishes it to be. There is no doctrine, no creed. I could say that UUism is about liberation and social justice while someone else could say it is about self-fulfillment and finding one’s own spirituality. Neither are wrong, and neither are completely right. UUism is about the self. I personally don’t owe anything to those that created Unitarianism or Universalism because although related to both, UUism is different and separate in my mind.

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