The Most Influential Theologian on Liberal Religion

Northwest UU Congregation
The Rev. Dr. Morris Hudgins
February 27, 2011

When I became a Unitarian Universalist minister, 38 years ago, I asked my new colleagues, “What theologian most eloquently expresses our UU beliefs and values?” I was surprised to hear the complete silence in the room. I wondered, “Do we not have some leading theologians? Is there not a consensus about a Unitarian Universalist theology?”

After some thought the ministers began to say something I was glad to hear. “Yes, there are some UU theologians. The problem is we don’t all agree on the same ones.” This is quite unique in the history and practice of religions. In Unitarian Universalism it is acceptable, in fact, encouraged to follow different paths in our theological journeys.

In most religions it is frowned upon to have such a diverse theological perspective. If you are a Methodist, it is expected to follow the theology of John Wesley; Presbyterian, John Calvin; Lutheran, Martin Luther; and Roman Catholicism, you follow the dictates of the hierarchy of the church, expressed by the Pope himself.

Part of the reason we don’t have one theologian or leader to speak for us is because of our organization. Following the Congregationalists of New England, our form of organization is called Congregational Polity. This is the opposite of Hierarchical Polity which many religions have. The extreme form of Hierarchical Polity is the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope has the authority to speak for Roman Catholicism. He speaks ex cathedra, which literally means by the chair, or by his office. In the Catholic Church the Pope speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals.

As we all know, the way it is supposed to be and the way it is, are two different things. Not every Roman Catholic agrees with the Pope on matters of faith and morals. Just ask Matthew Fox or Hans Kung, modern Catholic theologians who have been censured by the Catholic Church for their writings and beliefs. Hans Kung, a modern Martin Luther, had the gall to actually question the authority of the Pope, among other things.

Matthew Fox, the leader in the area of Earth Centered Spirituality, most noted for his challenge to the patriarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. He looks more to the earth for his guidance than the church fathers. In doing so, he has become a theological leader in many Protestant circles. Many Unitarian Universalists in recent years have followed his example and he has had a great influence on our liberal religious movement.

For purposes of this sermon I want to look back over 400 years of our church’s life. I ask you today: “Who do you think is the most influential theologian on our movement?” I ask this question in my UU history classes and I get a wide variety of answers. Let me give you some of them. One can make the case for many theologians who have influenced our movement. I am not here to disagree with their answers. There is no one answer to my question. I am going to give you my answer later, and it is an answer that will surprise you. But first let’s look at the list of possibilities.

Many people would say William Ellery Channing. Channing was a Congregational minister in Boston when Unitarianism was founded at the beginning of the 19th Century. That is a very good answer because Channing defined Unitarianism when we needed a definition. He was a well respected theologian and minister who accepted the challenge to define this new religion in America. The title of his memorable sermon that defined us was “Unitarian Christianity.”

At this time we were a liberal movement within Congregationalism. Many conservative Christians were not happy with the growing liberal view of Jesus. Channing and a large number of Congregationalists were questioning the Trinity, like their Protestant forebears in Europe—theologians like George Fox, the immanent Quaker theologian, and Joseph Priestley, the Presbyterian minister who defined Unitarianism in England in the 18th century.

If you look up the word Unitarianism in the dictionary or encyclopedia it will say: a Unitarian is a person who denies the Trinity, which takes away from the Unity of God. That is an accurate definition of a Unitarian, historically. Unfortunately, it is a limited or narrow definition. We are much more than that today. Yes, probably 99% of our members today would deny a belief in the Trinity today. But this view does not reflect the modern state of our Association.

Yes, Channing was our theological leader in 1825 when our movement was formed in Boston. His words still ring true when he said: “In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and one only.” Some of our critics, within our movement or without, would argue that we have gotten away from Channing’s definition of Unitarianism. I remember a popular definition of Unitarianism a number of years ago which went like this: “Unitarians believe in one God at most.” That simple statement tells you that in the 21th century it is not necessary to believe in God and be a Unitarian Universalist. That is true.

What attracts many of us to this religion is that we do not have a creed. When you agree to join us you are not signing a statement of belief. We are more concerned about good deeds than we are about right belief. As our Purposes and Principles states we draw our beliefs from many traditions, not one. Some of us are Christians like William Ellery Charming, who continue to believe in Jesus as a teacher or prophet but not God himself. Channing wrote that the doctrine of the Trinity subverts the unity of God. Channing, like most Unitarians through our history found the concept of the Trinity to be a confusing mess. As Channing wrote:

We do, then with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity.

Like the Unitarians before him in England, Poland, and Transylvania, Channing and the first Unitarians in America fit into this anti-Trinitarian mold. They used reason and scripture to create a new religion. We stand proudly in that tradition today. We may not quote scripture like Charming but we affirm his reasonable approach to theology. As is sometimes said, “We do not check our brains at the door when we enter the church.”

I appreciate Channing and his leadership in defining 19th century Unitarianism. He is, however, not the person I am looking far today. Most importantly his views do not include the other half of our denomination—Universalism.

Some members of my classes prefer the Universalist theology and look to people like John Murray the English Methodist who became the leader of Universalism in America. It was Murray who in the 18th century challenged the notion that some would be saved and others would be destined for eternal damnation in 18th. It was Murray who founded a church and called it Universalist. I love Murray’s Universalist theology and especially the quote in the back of our hymnal:

Go out into the highways and byways. Give people something of your new vision. You may possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of en and women Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Murray represents a view of religion that promotes a God of love and light as opposed to a God of judgment. With him we would probably agree that eternal damnation is not a doctrine to follow. Rather, we would promote the love of God and the potential of every human being. As a modern UU historian, and my friend, Charles Howe, would say: “God doesn’t give up on anyone.” Howe expresses a modern view of a Universalist faith. Murray would have been a good answer to my question this morning, but is still not the answer I want to present. We must look elsewhere.

A third possible answer for the most influential theologian on Unitarian Universalism is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a second generation Unitarian minister who challenged some of the religious assumptions of his Unitarian forefathers—especially the epistemological assumption that religious belief is based mainly on reason. Emerson wanted to add intuition as another primary way of knowing the truths of God. His transcendentalism, following the approach of Immanuel Kant, says that truth is known not by one’s empirical senses, what one sees and touches, but by the spiritual and the intuitive, what is felt before experience.

These beliefs were a stretch for the logical Unitarian mind of the mid-18th century mind and Emerson became uncomfortable and on the fringes of our movement. His pulpit would become the literary elite of the American frontier. He would never leave Unitarianism but he would never be the leader of the Unitarian movement. His influence would continue primarily through his fellow transcendentalists Theodore Parker, the Social Reformer and dynamic UU preacher who attracted thousands to hear him and James Freeman Clarke, the minister who served our congregation in Louisville, Kentucky before returning to Boston.

One could argue that Emerson through his radical notions influenced our movement as well as other radical religious movements. Examples are the spiritualists of the latter half of the 18th century and the 19th century movements such as the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship, a 20th century religious organization that considers Emerson to be one of their leading lights.

There is a group of modern-day Unitarian Universalists who blame Emerson for our lack of Unitarian loyalty. These critics would say, and rightly so, that Emerson was more concerned about individual freedom than community. I would also argue that it is always the new reformer who is criticized for a lack of loyalty to the tradition. Emerson surely fit that mold.

There are many more names that one could lift up as the most influential theologian on Unitarian Universalism. Hosea Ballou is another possible name because he was a Universalist who developed a Unitarian theology, and therefore paved the way for our merger in 1961. In the 20th century names like Henry Nelson Wieman, Kenneth Patton, and James Luther Adams all come to mind. I will have to leave a summary of these influential theologians for another day.

John Calvin
This leads me to the final name I want to leave with you this morning—and the one I will lift up as the most influential one our movement. I truly believe our movement would have existed and continued without the presence of all the others. We would not have existed, however, without this particular theologian. You will notice that I have not said he is a Unitarian Universalist. No, he was not, but he did, give us a reason
for our existence.

One of the points I make in my UU history class is that in order to have a person identified as a heretic you need a foil—an individual who sets the radical off as extreme and dangerous to the more conservative tradition. For the anti-Trinitarians reformers of the 16th century that individual was John Calvin, the Protestant reformer who wanted to make the Catholic church more spiritual in the 16th century. Calvin is my choice for the most influential theologian on our movement.

To help me make my point allow me to ask you a question: How many of you in this room were raised in another religion? How many of were raised as Presbyterian, Baptist, or United Methodist? As you think about the religious beliefs of your childhood, what were the basic principles of these religions? I will summarize them for you. Calvinism can be summarized as a belief in the following:

  • The Sovereignty of God
  • Revelation by Scripture
  • Justification by faith
  • Human depravity—all human beings because of the sin of Adam were in a state of sin and in need of grace.
  • Doctrine of the elect—sometimes called Double Predestination; some being destined for heaven and others to eternal damnation.
  • Belief in the Trinity
  • Autocratic government—in which the state and the church were one.

Now that we have outlined these beliefs, let’s look at the opposite beliefs:

  • God of love instead of judgment
  • Revelation by reason which supplements the Bible truths
  • Emphasis on deeds instead of faith
  • Basic human goodness instead of moral depravity
  • Universal salvation, all people having the potential to be saved, instead of election
  • Belief in the unity of God instead of the Trinity, along with subordination of Jesus to God.
  • Belief in democratic government instead of autocracy, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state instead of a government and people controlled by the church.

Calvin was the leader of the reformed movement centered in Geneva, Switzerland. He was born near Paris trained in theology and law, influenced by the humanists, he wanted to become a classical scholar. In his mid-twenties he underwent a conversion experience, and became an avid reformer of a more spiritual church. Lured by the reform leaders in Geneva he began transforming the city and its church. In the beginning he received opposition, was ordered to leave the city and was persecuted for his beliefs. Three years later his followers gained control and he returned.

One of his faults which has always haunted Calvin was his avid persecution of those who did not agree with his views on truth. The most noted was Unitarian forerunner Michael Servetus who Calvin had burned at the stake with his books in 1553. This act and the resulting public opinion against it resulted in more tolerance for others. That tolerance would occur first in Transylvania where the first Unitarian church was formed in the 1560s.
We must remember that both Calvin and Luther were Roman Catholics who led the Reformation in a moderate way. Though persecuted themselves, they also persecuted others that would take the Reformation even farther. Calvin agreed with Luther on papal authority, but differed with Lutheranism over the issue of the Lord’s Supper and in his attempt to achieve control of the state by the church. He also affirmed capitalism while encouraging the individual toward thrift, industry, sobriety, and responsibility.

In many ways even though we reject much of Calvin’s theology we must admit his ethic had great influence in American culture. Many of our present-day values came from Calvinism—the importance of reform, education, hard work, and responsibility. We must also give Calvin credit for recognizing the potential danger of exploitation of the worker and over self-indulgence.

The problem with Calvinism, as in many religions, is that Calvin’s followers carried his basic notions to an extreme. Unitarian Universalism as a religion exists in part to moderate the excesses of Calvinism. Our small denomination has had much more influence in this country because of our belief in separation of church and state.

How many of us would like to go back to where our country was 200 years ago? Do we want to go back to the time when you could be arrested for blasphemy? Do we want to place people in stockades for adultery? How far are we going with the sex lives of public officials?

It is time to return to a balance. Religion should speak to American public life but the church should not run the government. Let us also remember Calvin for his attempts to reform the church and make it more spiritual. It had become much too formal and scholastic before the Reformation. Let us also keep these things in mind for Unitarian Universalism.

In summary, the birth of religious liberalism is simply put the balancing of the extremes of Calvinism. I would also say that Universalism almost experienced a demise when many of the Protestant faiths in America adopted many of their beliefs, moderating Calvinism. What you find in many Baptist and Methodist churches today is a near Universalist theology with all people having the potential for salvation.

The merger with the Unitarians in 1961 reflected a liberalizing of Universalism, an acknowledgment of what others thought decades before that these two liberal denominations could be stronger together than they were separately. As a denomination we continue to carry the message of religious liberalism with emphasis on reason brought by the Unitarians, a loving God, developed by the Universalists, with both committed to a belief in free will, democratic process, basic human goodness, good deeds instead of creeds, Jesus viewed as a human being, teacher and prophet, and divinely inspired Scriptures, but written by humans.

When someone says that Unitarian Universalists don’t believe in anything remind them of this rich history that is over 400 years old, stretching from Transylvania, Poland, through Holland, England to America. In the 20th century we are expanding our influence to India, the Philippines, and throughout Europe, Central and South America. I am proud to be part of this liberal tradition and hope you are as well. Thank you.