There are many different “models” we use to try to describe and understand this living, growing religious faith we call Unitarian Universalism. The most common one is to describe us as a “non-creedal” faith, saying that we are a church that sets no creed or dogma for membership. While that may be true on the surface, I think there are some implicit beliefs and faith stances that make one more comfortable in our congregations. I have in the past described us as a “covenantal” church, but that also falls short, simply because we are fuzzy on what covenant means, and we do not always abide by the covenants we have. I have heard us called “The Living Tradition”, and resting our identity upon the history of women and men who came before us in this faith… and even appropriating a few others (like Servetus or Whitman). Many both within and beyond the walls of our congregations understand us as a “multi-faith faith”, in which you can either “believe anything you want” or “stand at the religious buffet line”.
When I was at the Army Chaplain School in 2007, I had to “explain” Unitarian Universalism about 5 times a day for three months, as almost all of my fellow students had never heard of our faith. Some were genuinely curious… a few had impressions of us as the “Buffet Church”, and others reacted very negatively to our existence as a faith, much less our being “allowed” to serve as military chaplains. One particular friend, a Southern Baptist, was genuinely interested in learning about Unitarian Universalism… and so we had several deep conversations, after which he went away and thought about it for about a week.
When he came back to me, he had a revelation for me. He wanted to ask me if I thought that Unitarian Universalism could be understood as a “Postmodern Religion”. He had studied postmodernism in seminary, because it was highly antithetical to his own faith. In fact, postmodernism had been taught as the “evil” or the “enemy” of his Baptist faith… it was what they fought against in this increasingly secular society. The idea that a religion could be distinctly postmodern in itself was revelatory for both him and me, if in completely different ways.
Postmodernism is a distinctly fuzzy term (contradiction intended). In general, it refers to anything “beyond the modern”, but I’m thinking of a more specific understanding. In art and architecture, it often denotes almost any reaction to modern forms and structures. In philosophy, postmodernism is deeply connected to critical theory, a reaction to philosophical structuralism, and to the theoretical descendents of Kierkengaard and Nietzsche.
I think the first step is to define, for myself, what I mean by Religious Postmodernism. As postmodernism has been defined in several different ways in different spheres, and as I have been unable to find a specific definition of what it is I am thinking, I feel free to do this. You can either accept or reject my connection of this specific concept of religion with this term as you see fit… but I think a working definition will announce the playing field.
So, Religious Postmodernism is a belief system that accepts that truth about religious questions is ultimately unknowable; that the experiences, feelings, and attitudes we hold profoundly change our perspectives; that the rituals, symbols, and communities we use and participate in have only the meanings we give them; and that accepts a dynamic, changing understanding of the universe.
I want to stress that this is a working definition… I am hoping that the denizens of the Celestial Lands will help me to refine it… but perhaps I should play around the outlines of this idea some more, by suggesting some characteristics of a Postmodern Religious Faith… you all can suggest some more characteristics…
A Postmodern Religious Faith:
Integrates at a deep level the idea that the “map is not the territory”… that symbols do not become that which is symbolized. Scripture therefore is a symbol of truth, but cannot be ultimate truth or “God’s Word” itself. One’s personal understanding of God or of the divine does not become God… only a symbol of a broader, unknowable totality… etc.
Accepts that, in light of a dynamic universe and the limitations of human ability, ultimate truth is forever unknowable, and therefore seeks wisdom broadly, both in and beyond other religious traditions.
Views claims of ultimate truth with deep skepticism, and turns a prophetic eye and voice upon such claims.
Works to become comfortable with paradoxes, contradictions, and with unknowing, and makes that work an integral part of pastoral ministry.
Accepts that there are not answers to every question, and there are rarely single answers to any question.
It emphasizes that our world is not binary, (black and white, right and wrong, left and right) and that such patters of thinking are a human illusion fixed in modern culture.
Views power-claims based upon tradition, structures or ultimate truth with skepticism, and instead focuses upon power structures based in dynamic relationship. A postmodern minister, therefore, does not gain ministerial authority from tradition, structures, or divine call… but rather from authentic relationship with those with whom they are called to minister.
Understands beliefs as temporary symbols of truth, but not truth or ultimate truth themselves. Postmodern religious beliefs are therefore fluid, and must change as perspective changes.
Anchors itself not around beliefs, but around broad-based principles that allow for continuous re-interpretation with changing perspectives. The principles must be large enough to be dynamic.
Its adherents are seeker/skeptics. They seek wisdom in many different traditions, philosophies, and ideologies, and yet remain skeptical of the ultimate truth claims of those traditions. They practice a multi-level form of engagement with ideas and theologies that allows for both depth and critique (similar to the “clinical method” that ministers learn through CPE).
I am sure there are more characteristics that we can outline, and I could sit here and ponder them all day… but I am eager to hear what you all might share. I will even add more as they come to me in the responses with you… I will eventually take the best of all the responses and put them together into some easily read form… so know that what you share may be used.
Yours in Faith,