Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Unitarian Universalism as a Postmodern Religious Faith

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,


4 Thoughts on “Unitarian Universalism as a Postmodern Religious Faith

  1. Synchronicity! I have been giving deep thought to this very concept. Interestingly, my impetus also came from a Southern Baptist — in my case, my OT professor who has moved away from Southern Baptism into a more liberal non-denominational Christian direction. He describes himself as postmodern.

    So I think, like many things, that religious postmodernism functions as a spectrum. If you are comfortable with a lack of sealed, definitive answers, you’re somewhere on that spectrum. Revelation is not sealed in religious postmodernism.

    I think Spong’s contention that experiences don’t change, but interpretation does, fits well in postmodernism. (I’m thinking of his metaphor of an epileptic seizure and how it was the same in either the 3rd or 20th century, but the interpretation was vastly different.)

    Now, what defines the different directions on the spectrum? I don’t think it’s liberal/conservative. On this spectrum, I think the ends are how comfortable one is with a lack of definitive “proof”. So on one end, you have someone like my professor who says, “I have faith in God, and I don’t need to have that backed up historically or scientifically. It’s a choice.” On the same end would be the person who says, “I don’t think there’s a God, but that’s just what I feel inside. I could be wrong.”

    On the other end, are the Christians who feel that their faith is based in logic and history, or the atheists who say that there cannot be a God. Okay, these examples wouldn’t actually be ON the postmodern spectrum … so, the penultimate version of them would make it onto the spectrum. The Christian who believes in the Catholic history of Jesus, but also believes in evolution, maybe.

    Just a thought, too early in the morning. Comfort with ambiguity! Yes, that’s what I was gong for.

  2. Thanks for this very thoughtful post, David. I like it very much. You have summarized some complicated theological / philosophical issues very well. The following strand of thought nonetheless passed through my mind as I read your post:

    I agree that UU is thoroughly Postmodern. And at least among seminarians, professors, and ministers, the term can definitely be a useful one through which to discourse on our faith. However, I have concerns about the terminology that is the most productive in general discourse (admittedly not your concern in this particular post) that I would like to throw into the mix.

    Just as I have typically and frequently said that I think the use of the word “God” often muddies things since it means so many things to as many people, and, in general contemporary America, something near a majority of religious people take it to mean something very similar to each other which is generally rather different from what just about any UU would mean by it. Therefore, using “God” in out-group communications typically does not bring one into the conversation but actually prevents real communication.

    So similarly, we need to be aware how our word choices, no matter how accurate, play out in various conversations – in what circumstances we would use certain terminology and in what circumstances we might better eschew the more accurate terminology for the one that allows us to communicate.

    But completely aside from questions of audience – and certainly you do know yours in this blog – and completely aside from the explicit meanings of such terms as non-creedal and Postmodern, I wonder about implicit meanings, about the connotations that come embedded with such terms. In this regard, I think that “non-creedal” and “Postmodern” do very different things.

    “Non-creedal” is a term that links us to our philosophical and denominational history. At any given moment it has not been and may possibly not be completely accurate, if one does not require a Creed to be written in blood on vellum and begin with the Latin word “credo” or its vernacular equivalent. But it identifies us as part of a broad, open, liberal, Radical Reformation, historical movement within the religious side of Western civilization. It is a word that speaks of roots – of belonging – of meta-orthodoxy.

    “Postmodern,” on the other hand, widely connotes a lack of rooted identity. Identity is provisional. Identity is contingent. Identity is temporary. Identity is an illusion. Real but still an illusion. And while I believe these things about identity, they do not help me in communication with out-groupers who want to know who I am or with many of my co-religionists, with whom I must forge this provisional, contingent group identity that chooses to claim roots not entirely arbitrary but not entirely organic. Postmodernism speaks of anti-meta-orthodoxy – perhaps of meta-heterodoxy.

    It may be that UU is the paradox of being simultaneously an organic anti-orthodox meta-orthodoxy and a cyborg orthodox anti-meta-orthodoxy. But I have no idea whether I can communicate with anyone in this language. On some days I can’t even communicate with myself that way. 🙂

    So… Thanks, David! I hope this conversation helps us communicate among ourselves more completely about who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be, so that we more completely understand the essence of what we hope to communicate to out-group people, in whatever language.


  3. Hi David, i’m not certain i care for the label “Postmodern” but i certainly like your explanation of what you mean in the use of the term. Our church has started a Humanist Study group and, if you are okay with the idea, i would like to hand out copies of this posting. bstr

  4. Bstr… of course… I am honored…

    Lizard… thank you! Your take is similar, but leading me on some other thought lines. I will get back to you after I have thought about it some more.

    Paul… I too have the tension you described… I would prefer a new word that was not any of the current terms we are borrowing from elsewhere… All of those terms have baggage that we do not intend. You do a good job identifying some of the baggage with post-modern…. but I think there is similar baggage that I personally do not agree with the term “non-creedal”. I think we do have an implicit creed about methodology, if not about explicit beliefs… and that our insistance that we are “non-creedal” is deeply misleading for some who walk through our doors, and then are not comfortable… because they do not naturally align with our implict faith methodologies.

    Thank you for the thoughts!

    Yours in Faith,


Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: