My purpose, in this paper, is to solicit the development of heuristic and constructive theological materials by Unitarian Universalist theologians for use by our ministers and congregants. To summarize the situation at hand, I detect two general trends among Unitarian Universalists: 1) the desire for spirituality and 2) a resistance to theological discourse as it is currently framed. A solution may be to frame the theological discourse in a “different way.” This “different way,” or different methodological approach, must reframe theological discourse and situate it within the context of the lay person’s existential desire for spirituality. If we wish to avoid lapsing into pure emotionalism-or faith without content, then cum assensione cogitare-to think with assent, is essential to the theological health of our movement. Given this basic premise, I will propose two possible “different ways.”


I’ve observed a growing propensity among fellow Unitarian Universalist ministers to close their emails with the phrase, “In Faith.” Quite possibly, this phrase signals a shift from the secular-humanist commitment of the past decades to the more commonplace experiential-mystical commitment of contemporary Unitarian Universalists. As a minister and as a theologian dedicated to rigorous thinking, I’m alarmed by the incompleteness, or lack of content, signaled by the two words, “In Faith”. Although the close, “In Faith,” ends with a comma-thereby giving the impression that something more might follow-nothing follows except for the signature line. The problem? “In Faith,” indicates a self-conscious commitment to faith-but to faith without an object, faith without content. In other words, “In Faith” signals nothing more than a commitment to faith for the sake of faith. Many Unitarian Universalists, ministers as well as congregants, call this kind of faith, spirituality. The decision to leave the object of faith unstated-and hence, either nonexistent or unknown, demonstrates the marginalization of theology in favor of spirituality or sensibility-a dissociation regarded as a normal state of affairs, and unfortunately, by some, as a preferable one.


Indeed, most of the members of my congregation have told me that they are looking for spirituality, not “theology.” By spirituality, they mean that they want to experience a movement of the heart during worship services. As to the possible cause or the possible end to that movement-they will, if pressed, rely on vague terms such as “the mystery of life,” or “the divine,” or “something greater than myself.” By theology, they mean substantive discussions about the content of “the mystery of life,” etc. They resist so-called theological discussions-perhaps because of what they view as theology’s link to the realm of the intellect (rather than to the realm of feeling), or perhaps because they were raised in doctrinal religious traditions and such discussions remind them of the childhood lessons they’ve rejected (but which, in some cases, continue to cause them a great deal of pain and anguish). The few who find themselves driven to reflect upon the destination of their heart’s movement find themselves alone and frustrated. For example, Philip Simmons, a Unitarian Universalist essayist who wrote for the UU World in 1999, acknowledged the amorphous character of his faith but expressed a longing for God regardless: “I am frankly-and I’m afraid, unfashionably, desperate for God. I say this even though my notion of God remains fluid and at times impossibly vague.(1)


For the purposes of this paper, I will, like Philip Simmons, use the traditional religious word, God, to designate what ministers and congregants sometimes refer to as “the mystery of life,” or “the divine,” or “something greater than myself,” etc. While many ministers and congregants desire a movement of the heart, they remain unable (or unwilling) to develop more than a “fluid and at times impossibly vague” understanding of the object toward which they wish their heart to move. The result, so aptly described by the scholar of mysticism, Andrew Louth, is division of heart and mind. Constructive theology, when properly carried out, is attentive both to the movement of the heart as well as to the movement’s destination. Louth warns, as I do, that to cut off the heart’s movement from its object “is particularly damaging in theology, for it threatens in a fundamental way the whole fabric of theology in both its spiritual and intellectual aspects.(2) If theology fails to embrace both the spiritual aspects (heart and emotion) and intellectual aspects (thought and reason), then it finds itself in a void-for where is its object? The traditional phrase, cum assensione cogitare; captures the essence of faith-namely, “faith is to think with assent.(3) Indeed, without thought, how can there be assent? When ministers close their emails with words like, “In Faith,” to what, exactly, are they assenting? When congregants like Philip Simmons yearn to experience the divine, to what, exactly, are they assenting? Unfortunately, even when ministers and congregants are willing to seek understanding and develop a substantive notion of God, they discover, as I have, that there exists a severe shortage of constructive tools.


If we, Unitarian Universalist scholars, wish to encourage and to enable ministers and lay-people to engage in meaningful theological reflection, then we must develop the constructive tools they require. In my opinion, these constructive theological methods do not require us to pay attention to the question of whether the word ‘God’ refers to something-or not. Following the work of the philosopher, D.Z. Phillips (a disciple of the later Wittgenstein), even if we could agree that the word ‘God’ referred to something real, the fact would remain that no “clarificatory conceptual work has been done.(4) When lay people utter statements like: “During worship, I feel a connection to the divine,” they have no interest in ascertaining whether the divine is ‘real’ and ‘unreal.’ And, even if we could demonstrate that their statements do, or do not, refer to something real, we should ask ourselves what we would achieve. I, along with D.Z. Phillips, would claim that we would achieve-nothing. If we are to develop constructive tools for the members of our faith tradition, we should not worry about such demonstrations. The purpose of constructive theological tools is not to prove or disprove God’s existence. Rather, their purpose is to provide the means for spiritually-inclined Unitarian Universalists to clarify and explicate the details of the God they encounter when they have a special and heightened consciousness of the divine.(5) I’ve adopted the preference of the scholar of mysticism, Bernard McGinn, for the category of ‘consciousness’ over the category of ‘experience’. The latter category has so often been used without definition that it has become imprecise, ambiguous and nearly meaningless.


A. Powell Davies once said: “And though I think there is more-very much more-that faith in God can do than we are ready for, it may be enough for the present if we follow that little kindly light of hope that never fails us-a light that none of us has kindled for himself, a light that belongs, as we do, to the mystery within us and beyond us, the mystery whose other, lovelier name is God.(6) Here, Davies may very well have articulated one of the underlying reasons that some Unitarian Universalists remain vague when asked to describe the direction of their heart’s movement: “God is a mystery within us and beyond us.” While congregants may not be familiar with Kant’s division of objects of knowledge into the two separate realms of the noumenal and the phenomenal, they are enlightened individuals who are keenly aware that there are boundaries to what they can know. In other words, when they experience a movement of the heart, they probably also realize that their heart has moved toward an object that lies beyond the strictly phenomenal realm. The scholar of mysticism, Paul Rorem explains: “if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge.(7) Kant would agree with Rorem’s assessment. Since mystical theology takes a special interest in the transcendent, or that which lies beyond knowledge, it could well prove to be an especially fruitful area when searching for theological tools. Both of the methods I now wish to explore contain mystical components.


One possible approach to mystical theology is double-pronged and dialectical. For example, the Neoplatonist-Christian theologian, Pseudo-Dionysius insists on an apophatic, transcendent (and thus absent) God who “cannot simply be called word or power or mind or life or being, for God is completely beyond our every conjecture, name, thought and conception.(8) He also insists that the other prong of a properly dialectical approach is cataphatic-the approach that renders God immanent (and thus present). This approach takes into account that, for human beings to make any sense of God, we are compelled to find analogies or metaphors within the realm of what we know. Accordingly, we give God names like ‘spirit of life’, ‘God,’ ‘goodness,’ ‘love,’ ‘beauty’, absolute ‘truth,’ or ‘nature’-names that either draw on common sensory perceptions or on the domain of our concepts or ideas. Pseudo-Dionysius favors the methodological tension engendered by naming God and unnaming God since “as Cause of all and as transcending all, he is rightly nameless and yet has the names of everything there is.” For Pseudo-Dionysius “God’s causation of all things justifies the use of all created things or thoughts among the divine names; yet the divine transcendence beyond all these things and thoughts demands the denial of all names.(9) Thus, his mystical theology allows us to speak of God in familiar terms and render God immanent, while simultaneously warning us to remember that these names are human constructs and that God transcends the familiar. For Unitarian Universalist theologians, Pseudo-Dionysius’ dialectical, apophatic-cataphatic method may provide a useful resource.


A standard charge against mystical theologies is that they lack an ethical dimension. Such a charge is often valid and so we may want to take into account James Luther Adams’ demand for an ethical theology as well as his claim that guidance concerning what is valuable for human life could not be found in the idea of Nature. He rejected Nature as a valid grounding for theology because it failed to call for a human life attuned to appropriate moral precepts: Nature religions try, and we have some Unitarians who try, to understand man primarily as related to and embedded in nature. But nature has no culture. Nature entails neither ideological conflict nor any bonding except that which is instinctual… Nature religions tend, therefore, to have a philosophy of time that is cyclical. They try to understand human history in terms of the cycles of nature, of birth, growth, senility, death, birth and growth. That is a conception of history and human nature and culture that really makes individuality seem an illusion… Nature religions tend NOT to recognize a universal demand which cuts in on nature and across one’s natural instincts and tendencies.(10) To address Adams’ important observations about the crucial role of a universal ethical demand, the work of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, may offer valuable assistance. In his seminal work, I and Thou, Buber describes the possibility of an encounter with God similar to that described by spiritual Unitarian Universalists-namely, an encounter characterized by an heightened awareness or consciousness of God’s presence. For Buber, such an encounter takes place at a cognitive level that is deeper and more fundamental than what we may experience through “sensing, knowing and loving.(11) The divine presence is given in a direct and immediate manner. However, for Buber, an encounter with God can only occur if and when we are in relation with others. On the one hand, God cannot be encountered as long as we remain alone, at a remove from our fellow creatures. On the other hand, we cannot merely be in relation with others either. Rather, we must treat others, not as means, but as ends. If we hope to encounter God, we can only do so through the mediation of another human being whom we approach with absolute trust, vulnerability and intimacy. Thus, our preparations for an encounter with God require us to interact ethically with another human being. In return, our encounter with God’s presence leaves us with a demand to enact God’s justice in the world. Both the preparation leading to a possible encounter with God, as well as the effect of an encounter are ethical in nature.(12) The ethical component of Buber’s work may provide even more important and beneficial ground for Unitarian Universalist theology than Pseudo-Dionysius’ Neoplatonist-Christian mysticism.

Rev. Myriam Renaud
A paper presented to UU Collegium, Los Gatos, CA
Nov. 2-5,2006
© 2005 All Rights Reserved.

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