There has been much written lately of the need to revitalize liberal religion. Theologians and pastors express their desire to reinvigorate a faith that should hold such promise but seems fundamentally unable to deliver what the mind and heart of congregants and society as a whole seek. This wistfulness at times seems to take on a hint of desperation. There are clarion calls for change, cynical declamations of the death of Unitarian Universalism, and a myriad suggestions of how to revitalize a dying theology. We hope for a cure – or perhaps even a resurrection - but the suggested measures seem more and more futile and we seem no closer to revivifying our faith.
Yet as we look around us, our culture is obviously alienated and seeking answers. There are many who cross our thresholds looking for something, who are not finding it, and leave in disappointment. Many of these people cannot put their finger on what, exactly, they are looking for, but they know that the secular culture is not giving them the answers that they seek. They are looking for something fundamentally religious, but what we are offering is simply not addressing their needs.
Perhaps it is time to declare the truth. Liberal religion has managed to make itself irrelevant. We have marginalized ourselves and, in many ways, while endlessly examining ourselves, have failed to observe what is occurring in the broader culture. Because we have been fundamentally unable to correctly assess and understand what is happening around us, we have painted ourselves into a corner. The situation is not hopeless, but it requires our understanding our roots, the ennui of modernity, the failure of post-modernity, and how we, as a church, can fit into what comes next.
A Brief Retrospective
To understand how we arrived at this crossroads, it seems necessary to engage in a bit of intellectual history. I beg the reader’s indulgence with the following walk through the evolution of modern philosophy, truncated though it will be. However, without appreciating the antecedents to our modern liberal faith it is impossible to see how it fundamentally disconnects from our culture and therefore a path to relevance.
Early in the Enlightenment it became clear to a number of forward thinkers that the Age of Reason had profound implications for religion. As Europeans moved out of the Age of Faith, they realized that the world was, indeed, a very complex place and they began thinking in earnest about that complexity. Clearly there was a great deal of physical complexity to be explored and early scientists from the Renaissance forward began their work of understanding astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry and the rest of it. As that work advanced, it became clear that the social order that had been predicated on faith was itself suspect and that suspicion quickly led to a realization that the nature and role of man in the universe was very much up for grabs.
Philosophy, as fundamentally distinct from theology, began to flower in the West as it not had since Ancient times. These early attempts at philosophy took their cues from the ancients: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle among others. The ancient problems of metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy and epistemology become subjects of incisive and profound debate. Against that backdrop two main streams of thought emerged in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. The Realists, represented by Descartes, articulated a fundamental dualism that distinguished between body and mind. The body, according to Descartes and his lineage, is a machine subject to the laws of physics. The mind was something else again. Truth, according to the Realists, could not be had by observation alone, but only by deduction and, thus, the superiority of mind over nature was firmly established. For the Realists, the body was merely a vessel for the higher functions of the mind and this led to a devaluation of the material world.
The British Empiricists, in reaction to the Continental Realists, developed an epistemology based on sense data. In the hands of Locke and Hume, and their followers, the material word is the fundamental reality. All claims not based in exterior physical reality as perceived by the senses are deemed not proved by reason and met with skepticism. While a tremendous boon to scientific method, this monistic reductionism to mere physical reality created massive philosophic problems when it came to epistemology, and, by extension, ethics and aesthetics. For the Empiricists, it was impossible to reason from what “is” to what ought to be and thus there was a fundamental dilemma at the core or Empiricism. Indeed, the Empiricists managed in a few short decades to dissociate the true from the good and the beautiful and, simultaneously, they redefined the true to exclude matters of speculation divorced from science. They reduced all truth to what can be deduced from the observation of phenomena and thereby gutted the entire philosophic endeavor in metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics. Their epistemological methodology was so powerful that it was a death blow to the Realist point of view which was wholly speculative in comparison and not even remotely capable of rising to the challenge. The Empiricists set the parameters of the debate of fundamental ideas for next one and half centuries.
Immanuel Kant, without doubt the greatest of the Enlightenment philosophers, attempted to unify what the Empiricists had managed to dissociate. His principal books Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason and Critique of Judgment address truth, ethics and aesthetics in turn. At the heart of his arguments is the distinction between phenomena and noumena (that which is perceived by the senses and that which is understood by the mind a priori). Accepting, for the most part, a monological world view posited by the Empiricists, Kant argued that this world is organized by mental concepts for which there is no purely empirical basis. Without these, there would be mere parade on unchoate sense experience. He thus developed a philosophy of Idealism. Yet for all its complexity, critics agree that this sophisticated epistemology was built on a sophistic bit of legerdemain which rendered it fundamentally incapable of reconciling the dissociations generated by the Empiricists between mind, matter and morals. Tried as he might, Kant could not create the unified field theory of this day.
In response to the coldly materialistic and rationalist view that was emerging as the consensus of the Enlightenment sprung the Romantic Movement. The philosophic precursors to the Romantic Movement - Leibnitz, Fichte and Spinoza - argued that nature was monistic, not dualistic. However, unlike the Empiricists, they fundamentally denied the notion that the world of phenomena was the essence of the reality but rather that phenomena were a mere manifestation of a higher reality (typically, God or Nature). Their views tended towards a pantheistic worldview that rendered phenomena fundamentally illusory. They exalted imagination, intuition, faith, and inspiration and had a fundamental contempt for the rational, which they viewed as dissociative and harmful. For some, followers of Fichte, this involved a path of transcending the world of appearance and union with a Transcendental Self. For the followers of Spinoza, there was a movement of identifying with nature. Beyond the original progenitors of this worldview, there was little attempt to develop a thoughtful moral system, it became clear fairly quickly that “act naturally” was not a sufficient moral code in the shadow of the violent callousness of nature itself. Romanticists did (and still do) idealize primitive cultures while ignoring the fact that in these cultures life was far from progressive and, for most, was nasty, brutish and short. Because they devalued reason, the Romantics tended to be fuzzy thinkers.
Into this mix stepped the German Idealists. Schelling and Hegel argued that that the fundamental distinction pointed out by Descartes was a false dichotomy. That mind and nature must emerge from the same matrix, the same “ground of being” and must therefore be unified. At the most fundamental level, there was no meaningful distinction between subject and object (mind and matter). They went on to say that Spirit (Geist in German) was working itself out in the world of phenomena (which contains both mind and matter). This worldview stated that reality is a process of unified reality expressing itself in multiplicity and in a process of teleological development. As Hegel put it, “The Absolute is in the process of its own becoming.” At its root, this developed Idealism proposed a transpersonal reality and a teleological direction to history and human development.
Within a few decades German Idealism was dead letter. It had been supplanted by political systems (such as communism) and by the rise of the nation state, industrialism, capitalism and scientific progress (all of which were the natural outgrowth of the ideas of the British Empiricists). This rush of efficiency brushed aside the insights of these philosophers as quaint and fundamentally irrelevant metaphysics.
Also problematic was the fact that the German Idealists were depending primarily on a flash of intuitive insight. The physical sciences did not support their theories and their worldview could not be substantiated by scientific method (though it seemed to comport with the emerging theories of social and physical evolution). These philosophers were unable to propose a methodology to prove their contentions - a way to show that, indeed, reality was nondual and transpersonal. Their arguments were mere words on a page and lost in the headlong rush of modernity.
The Rise of Liberal Theology
As is always the case, Christian systematic theology took its cues from the general cultural developments. In this case, theology was transformed by the principles of the Enlightenment. Christian theology was subjected to the scrutiny of reason and was stripped of the miraculous and the mysterious. By the middle of the 19th Century, Jesus had become merely an historical figure and the powerful tools of textual criticism had torn to shreds any vestige of the notion that the Bible was the infallible word of God. By the end of the 19th Century, God was dead.
As humanity stepped into the 20th Century, it did so with the awesome legacy of the power of scientific method with its roots in materialist monism. This worldview allowed humanity to make great strides in advancing education, medical care, political freedom, democracy, increased standards of living, technology, and our collective general understanding of the universe. Most of these benefits were relegated to the few. The Enlightenment also spawned the corporation, the democratic nation sate, capitalism, and a view that people and the environment are essentially very complex machines to be used and harnessed for the purposes of men. It should have come as no surprise that the full flowering of this worldview in the 20th Century was, with all its advances, also a moral wasteland of genocides, world wars of unimagined horror, environmental degradation, economic exploitation and a host of other evils. The Enlightenment world view left us with vast technological capability, but did not commensurately advance our ability to think or act morally. It gave us amazing tools, but no equivalently noble understanding of how to use them.
Recent Theological History
In the midst of the horror of modernity, the Existentialists arose. Growing out of the phenomenology of Husserl and the dismissal of the German Idealists, there was a growing visceral realization of the implications of the fact that materialism provided no basis for ethics and that Enlightenment rationalism was a spiritual cul de sac. The Existentialists reasoned that because matter was all there was, all that was possible was to simply be and to act authentically according to that being. In Christian theology, this movement manifested itself as liberal theology. Soren Kierkegaard promulgated a leap of faith. The great Christian myths were reinterpreted to remove the irrational and transformed into metaphorical realities. Karl Barth attempted to separate Christ from culture. Rudolph Bultmann worked to demythologize Christianity and Paul Tillich sought to find philosophic solace in tying Christianity to the works of Hiedegger and other existentialists. And finally, the process theologians attempted to redefine Christian faith as a pluralistic and inclusive expression of the divine.
Given the political ferment of the mid-Century, Liberation Theology arose as a means to combat oppressive systems. While there is no appreciable systematic theology for this movement, it grows fundamentally out of a reinterpretation of the Christian salvation myth as a mandate for social liberation and change. Growing out of Marxist ideology and a recognition of the mandates of teachings of the historical Jesus, this movement took shape as a social force particularly in Central and South America.
On the intellectual front, post-modernism emerged as a critique of the Enlightenment world view. It’s central tenet, that all thought is culturally embedded and therefore inescapably relative, sought to neutralize the political and economic excesses of the Enlightenment while not discarding its essentially monistic materialist worldview. Because post-modern thought is fundamentally pluralistic and global, it has found great resonance with many people with religious sensibilities. It seems “spiritual” and universal. But while it promises an open-hearted compassion, it fundamentally and irrevocably runs aground on the shoals of moral relativism which, in the blink of an eye, is transformed into moral nihilism. Thus, the core of liberal theology, as it has evolved to date, arises from a world view that cannot fundamentally address the question of moral nihilism because it is fundamentally founded on a radical materialistic monism. Any religion which cannot rise above moral nihilism cannot survive for long.
In the end, most of liberal theology of the last century and the religious formulations it spawned are fundamentally secular ideas dressed in religious language. They are not authentically religious at their core but are rather secular ideas clothed in the guise of religion. And because the secular ideas themselves are deeply problematic, dressing them up in religious language is like the wolf donning grandma’s clothes.
Unitarian Universalism Emerges
The Unitarian Universalist Association, established in 1961, was founded largely on humanist principles. The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 and its restatements in 1972 and 2003 contain many tenants that the vast majority of modern Unitarian Universalists would nominally find acceptable expressions of their world view. The world views expressed in these documents are attempts at creating a wholly secular liberal religion – one devoid of the need to mythic gods or anything beyond the material. They are based on the fundamentally monistic world view of the Empiricists that admits nothing beyond physical reality. While the Humanist documents contain aspirational goals that could be construed as moral, those goals can be immediately dismissed as fundamentally and irrevocably unsupported and unprovable by the very methodology on which the humanists claim to rely…reason. They are articles of pure faith and worse, they are disingenuous because they have been known to be false for close to 300 years. As became evident in the 1700s, reason (in the formal philosophic sense) cannot provide a sufficient basis for morality if all of reality is merely material. What “is” (i.e. material reality) can never be a sufficient basis for what “ought” to be. Put in concrete terms, scientists can splice genes but cannot tell society what the ethical use of that technology should be. This internal contradiction renders scientific materialism, in its pure form, a fundamentally bankrupt worldview when it comes to morals or beauty. It can provide no basis for religion and thus secular religious Humanism was dead on arrival.
Much of the recent hand-wringing over the future of Unitarian Universalism, and its being mired in late stage humanism, weak forms of liberation theology and post-modern multiculturalism, can be attributed to the fact that our faith is premised on this reductionist world view. There is simply no specifically moral or religious power in the tenants of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought. Some elements, while cautious of stating this too directly, have realized the consequences of being too wedded to an Enlightenment world view that is premised solely on materialism. The options are either to dress up symbols of faith as though they have some metaphoric meaning that is intrinsic to themselves, to culturally appropriate and bastardize religious practices from other cultures in a vain hope to import superficial meaning, devolve into mere political action without a fundamental moral base, or to flee into Romanticism. All four are evident in the modern UU church. We are an intellectually bankrupt faith that drifting without a source for deep morality or conviction. We therefore shamelessly plagiarize the secular culture in an attempt to create a pastiche that will pass for meaning. We have been unable to find that intellectual integrative framework that allows us to generate a compelling moral and aesthetic framework. Instead, we are heirs to a cold rational view of the world that ultimately deadens, rather than enlivens, its adherents. We vaguely recognize the horrors of modernity and confusion of post-modernity, but we have not sufficiently questioned the assumptions of modernity and post-modernity such that we would seek a compelling alternative. We are essentially materialists hoping, against reason, for hope.
And so, whither Unitarian Universalism?
The New Physics and the New Age
The early part of the 20th Century brought with it a radical restructuring in the way we look at the physical world. In the very large and the very small, the universe became a very strange place. People began to recognize that these discoveries had massive philosophical implications. Physical cosmology allowed for the regeneration of philosophic metaphysics. One of the first to grasp these implications was Alfred North Whitehead. While he carefully distanced himself from the German Idealist excesses, he revived and recast many of the nascent ideas that had been articulated by Schilling and Hegel. Whitehead, while not completely able to shed the philosophic discussions of the past, was able to resurrect the notion of valid interior reality (and hence the possibility of morality). He articulated a view that reality is process and that “god” is not yet, but becoming. Whitehead’s arguments were difficult to grasp and not readily accessible to laypeople, but a few theologians that saw the implications for resurrecting a viable ground for new understanding of the notion of divinity in the modern world. That theological understanding has profound implications and seems to hold great promise, but it is unwedded to any type of religious practice.
At the same time, philosophers in the East were seeing corollaries between their complex cosmologies and the loose implications of Western science. Sri Aurobindo, educated in the West, wrote extensively to establish, from the perspective of Hindu Vedantic philosophy, a non-dual view of the world that transcended both monism and dualism. Again, the notions were remarkably similar to those of the German Idealists. However, they were also backed by millennia of spiritual practice (in the forms of janna, karma, bhakti, tantric and raja yoga) that made the discussion subjectively authentic and which provided what was missing from Whitehead’s intellectual construct – repeatable, consistent and predictable non-dual human experiences. Aurobindo’s ideas while revolutionary were firmly rooted in the Advaita schools of Vedantic philosophy. Many of his ideas have analogues in philosophical Taoism and the more philosophic streams of Mahayana Buddhism. Moreover, the states of non-dual consciousness reported by yogis parallels similar non-dual states found in virtually all mystic traditions of both the East and the West. Nevertheless, Aurobindo’s writings were the first large scale attempt to integrate deeper Hindu philosophic ideas into a Western framework, informed by Western philosophic debate and then recent scientific developments. People took notice.
As it came to pass, Aurobindo’s philosophy had a great deal of influence in the West. Due largely to the unheralded work of Frederic Spiegelberg, The work of Aurobindo was introduced to key participants in the Beat movement in San Francisco, including Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Murphy, Dick Price and Jack Kerouac. Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, and other intellectual and cultural luminaries of the time such as Gregory Bateson, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, and Ram Dass were also deeply influenced. This San Francisco renaissance in turn led to the rise of Esalen and the founding of the California Institute of Integral Studies Through this lineage, Aurobindo’s influence on the thinking of progressive spiritual practitioners in the West cannot be overstated.
In addition to these philosophic developments, the 20th Century saw the emergence of a whole new science – psychology – which was specifically designed to explore inner space. For the first time the rigors of reason were turned inwards. However, the same rules that applied to scientific inquiry could not effectively plumb the depths of the human psyche. This inner world turned out to be a weird and wonderful landscape filled with all sorts of realities – rational and irrational. Interestingly, the psychological movement became the human potential movement when it came into contact with the philosophy of Aurobindo in San Francisco in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some of the manifestations of this collision were truly cultlike but most were seriously grounded in theory and clinical practice. Maslow, Perls, Rogers, Frankl, Groff and others were influenced directly or indirectly by the evolutionary, transpersonal spirituality of Aurobindo and his introduction to the West in San Francisco in the late 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1960s Eastern thought and the human potential movement collided with hallucinogenic experiences and they all went mainstream. At the same time, social unrest brought about by racial injustice and the Vietnam War galvanized a generation. This was a tremendous time of intellectual ferment and radical new ways of thinking emerged about human rights, education, politics, ecology, gender, race and host of other fields. The fact that this was not purely rational in an Enlightenment sense gave permission to many to abandon reason. The resulting consciousness movement is a patchwork of the truly looney and the profound. It is strikingly varied and diverse movement. Many ideas that have emerged in popular culture seem fundamentally unreasonable. Yet serious work based on a fundamentally altered worldview not based solely an Enlightenment scientific materialism is being done by scholars, scientists and academicians. Indeed, these streams of thought are gaining growing recognition in academic circles as having significant insights that are advancing human understanding. In short, some of this movement seems to be an emergence of an anti-intellectual Neo-Romantic movement while other parts seem to be developing a fundamentally Transrational philosophy that has deep intellectual credibility. These later developments are worthy of our serious consideration.
What is most interesting about the New Consciousness movement is that its philosophical tenants are almost uniformly rooted in personal and corporate disciplines and practices. These range from the rationally odd and apparently unsupportable (such as the magical use of crystals and astrology) to the highly disciplined and culturally proven (highly disciplined zen and yoga practices). Some of these ideas seem nothing less than irrational wishful and muddied thinking, but others are sublime in the richness of their tradition and ability to connect ideas and experiences common to the human condition. This is not a small matter. Sorting these out is important work and most people cannot be bothered – they simply label it all as New Age and dismiss it. For thinking religious people, that is a shame. The salient fact is that millions of people are part of this movement and exploring their inner landscape (as well as acting to change the world) in intentional communities with a view to finding truth and meaning. Is that not the very definition religion?
A Modest Proposal
I would submit that “religion” in a rather chaotic and disparate set of displays is happening around us throughout our culture. It is estimated that 20% of the population in the United States is open to the idea of transpersonal spirituality and at least dabble in aspects of that spirituality. This new religion is most definitely not a liberal religion rooted in the Enlightenment but rather a transpersonal religion springing from the implications of the new physics and rooted in both Eastern and Western nondual philosophies. It is a fundamental shift of worldview and, at this point, we, as Unitarian Universalists, are, for the most part, lagging far, far behind these trends because we do not understand them or know what to make of them. We are locked in old arguments about dead issues. The world has moved on and left us behind. Yet, if we pay attention, we as Unitarian Universalists are uniquely situated to participate in what is a major cultural shift that is only gaining momentum. Why is it that we are so well situated to grasp this opportunity?
First, and most important, we are not truly affiliated with a mythic tradition. Our Christian roots have been effectively cut and while we can and should look at the historical Jesus and the Christian tradition, we do so as we would any spiritual tradition. We have no need to perpetuate symbols that have lost their meaning to thinking people in our culture. In short, we are in a very different position from mainline churches faced with the same problems and which must, by virtue of their heritage, cleave to an outdated liberal religion grounded in a fundamentally materialist world view.
Second, our roots in the humanist movement allow us, in all good conscience, to take the next step into world of transpersonal psychology and the academically responsible manifestations of the human potential movement. We can read and incorporate the latest thinking on human development and foster the individual and corporate growth of individuals in ways that allow people to reach their full potential. We provide a community in which that can happen, and with a bit of thought, we can begin to create structures that truly allow congregants to move up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and live authentic, more psychologically whole, lives. If we do this one thing, our churches will, inevitably grow and grow in very healthy ways.
Third, our religious syncretism can be changed from mere dabbling to a commitment to explore interior space in ways that are culturally authentic and proven. We are ideally situated to assist individual congregants in finding their own spiritual practices from any one of many traditions that allow them to explore and discover their interior space and reconnect with an integrated reality that is neither fundamentally monistic or dualistic. There is something to be said for creating depth around these practices as is the case for many spiritual traditions. Our genius is that we are not wedded to any particular tradition but can help congregants navigate a spiritual practice that will, over time, create great meaning for them and for their communities.
Fourth, our theologians can be at the vanguard of thinking about the moral and sociological implications of the cosmological conclusions that are being derived as this New Consciousness unfolds. It has been said that saving our planet doesn’t involve understanding how to live morally but rather in understanding how to get human beings to agree to live morally. This type of sea change of consciousness requires insight, focus, perspective and a fundamentally integral view of the world that will allow for thoughtful but forceful change. It also requires thoughtful political action designed to unite and integrate world views rather than foster the polarization and divisions that exist in our body politic.
This article is a call for leadership in our seminaries and in the denomination as a whole to begin a revisioning of Unitarian Universalism that is not a rehashing of fundamentally failed materialist viewpoints from the past or the imposition of the moral relativism of the post-modern critique, but rather a brave exploration of the vanguard of progressive thinking about cosmology, human consciousness, modern religious practice and the redesign of the social order to permit sustainable human and ecological structures. We have the potential of turning our churches into centers of spiritual life that are on the cutting edge of intellectual, cultural and moral change. It is an unparalleled opportunity that should not be missed. Indeed, if we ignore it, we do so at our peril.
Matthew Wesley holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary and a J.D. from Stanford Law School. He is a member of the Woodinville Unitarian Universalist Church in Woodinville, Washington and is a practicing estate planning attorney.
© 2007. Matthew W. Wesley. All rights reserved.