In Order For It To Be A “Living Tradition”, You Have To Know The Tradition…or Modern Unitarian Universalism As A Case of Willful Amnesia

Tony Lorenzen over at the Sunflower Chalice blog posits that the continuing animosity towards the idea of Christianity in many UU circles is due, at least partly, to aversion addiction. It is an insightful analysis and I encourage you to read it.

I think Tony may be on to something, at least as far as those 50+ may be concerned. But I would posit that, for the children of those 50+, the case is much less aversion than the ingrained willful ignorance to scripture and tradition that they have received.

Many years ago Roger Wilkins, the historian and author, gave a speech in which he said, “What you have amnesia towards does not have amnesia towards you.” Now…he was talking about American history as it relates to those of African descent, but I think it fits the modern UU situation well.

For an example, let’s look at Rob Bell, who is just the latest in a long line of  Christian thinkers to explore the questions about the nature of God and God’s love and come out less than orthodox (even if not fully universalist or unitarian). Many in the UU-blogosphere tried to render an opinion as to whether Rob Bell was an universalist or not–without having any clue as to what classical universalist theology is, much less having any idea of who someone like Quillen Shinn is. (if you know what classical universalist theology is and/or know who Quillen Shinn is, I’m not talking about you.) Many of those same bloggers were eager to claim Rob Bell as one of us, not knowing where he fits in the line (assuming that one believes that he is an universalist).

If modern Unitarian Universalism is indeed a “living tradition,” would it not behoove us to actually talk about the tradition from which we come from more than just at Christmas and Easter? Instead we have this willful amnesia.

In a way, it is a real shame that we don’t do catechism the way our Transylvanian brothers and sisters do. If we did, then we would be able to pass on the tradition on in a systematic way to all comers. From there  you could give people the breath and wealth of all the world’s religions. Thus it would be truly a living tradition–a tradition that encounters the rest of the world in all its fullness and glory. Not only that, if we built a catechism we could tell our story–from Arius and Origen to Sharon Welch and Rebecca Parker.

The Methodist have the Wesleys. The Presbyterians have John Knox. The Baptists have Roger Williams. The Quakers have George Fox. The Brethern have Alexander Mack. We have Michael Servetus. And John Murray. And William Ellery Channing. Yet how much of our story is transmitted on any sort of regular basis?

Notice I said story and not theology. The reason I said story and not theology is simple…if I know your story, I can figure out your theology. Your story helps give your theology its framework–its body. Just as, once more fully developed, your theology helps you look at your story in new ways.

Our story is part of the Christian story. And it is a story that only we can tell. It is a story that we MUST tell. Others can, and do, talk about our classical theologies. But only we have the story. And we do ourselves and those to whom we are theologically and ecclesiastically related to a disservice by not telling our story.

If we are to be a “living tradition,” don’t we have to know our take on the tradition first?


8 thoughts on “In Order For It To Be A “Living Tradition”, You Have To Know The Tradition…or Modern Unitarian Universalism As A Case of Willful Amnesia

  1. I think some of the trouble that UUs have in having their story told is how many of us are converts of some stripes. In our Young Adult ministry, I’d reckon that less than a third grew up UU. In the other 2/3s are people who could tell you stories of their faiths of origin, if they existed. The reasons that being UU makes sense to them might have little to do with Origen (though few Christians I am acquainted with are familiar with him – education is a privilege, the only one I’d met was a doctoral candidate in Protestant Biblical interpretation) or Quillen Shinn, but ideas they drew from being Methodist or Catholic, etc.

    You write that if you know one’s story, your theology gets its framework. I agree with that. Perhaps the difficulty with maintaining a story is that the story of the faith group in broader history is different than stories of current congregants. Immigration changes the US, and conversion may be having a similar effect on UUism. UUism’s story is not going to be linear as long as people keep arriving from other places, be it sects of Christianity or other faiths.

    I agree that we should embrace our Christian roots. A lot of good gets thrown out when people confuse some Christians for the entirety Christianity, which I think is responsible for the knee jerk reaction that you see in many UU circles. Not all of them, of course.

  2. When the Worcester church has had classes on the history of UU, they’ve been very popular. And, although they were given for newcomers, they’ve been appreciated by long-term members as well. I think it’s just fine, in the process, to hear the stories of other traditions. Eboo Patel’s book, which sort of gets going toward the end, makes the good point that other people’s stories can help us understand and develop our own. To just flop around in an ocean of “think what you want and be spiritual” is unsatisfactory, and I’ve heard those who do so complain that they need help to become “more spiritual”. Owning the story(ies) would offer that help!

  3. Hey there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

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