Awake People Be Awake: The Risks of UU Exceptionalism and Spiritual Manifest Destiny

You may not know it, or even agree with it, but you may very well be a Christian.  Anonymously.

It does not matter if you identify as Pagan or Jewish, Muslim or atheist – if you do good works in the world, you are, according to a respected 20th century Christian theologian, a Christian without even knowing it.

I first encountered this particular form of balderdash as an undergraduate in a Liberation Theology course, taught by a professor I idealized.  At some point, I made some charitable or justice-infused statement and he suggested that I was, despite being relatively self aware, a Christian.

He knew I was an avowed atheist, so where the hell did that come from?  He explained the concept of the Anonymous Christian, originally put forward by Karl Rahner, whose intention was to be inclusive.  It was his way of finding coherence between two deeply held beliefs: belief in Jesus Christ as the true messiah and only path to salvation and there were plenty of good, decent human beings who weren’t explicitly Christian.   Rahner could not imagine that those people, or people who had never had the chance to be exposed to the gospel, would be automatically damned.  So, like many other theologians before and after him, instead of dumping the narrow belief (that there is only one way to heaven), he contorted it into something new: the category of anonymous Christian to ensure that they would have access to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Are your rankles in a roar?  Your dander got all huffy?  Do the phrases “arrogant,” “patronizing,” or “you have got to be friggin’ kidding me” come to mind?  As a person of faith and/or person of integrity, are you feeling dismissed? The object of religious hegemony?  Think you, especially if you are Unitarian Universalist, would never, ever do that?

Read on.

Last fall, I attended a lecture by one of the professors at my seminary, Professor Yahya Michot.  He is one of the foremost scholars of controversial, influential Islamic teacher, Ibn Taymiyyah.  Controversial? Yes: he is the only ancient Muslim scholar referenced (and given blame for) in the 9/11 Commission Report.

I have not taken a class with Professor Michot, but my fellow students speak highly of him, as a scholar and as a teacher (as we seminarians know, these two skill sets do not always cohabitate in the same person).  He had just published a book, Ibyn Taymiyyah: Against Extremisms, the goal of which is to “contribute to a more correct appreciation of one of the most influential of the classical Islamic thinkers.”

During the lecture, I was sitting next to another Unitarian Universalist.  When Professor Michot spoke of one of Taymiyyah’s texts that supported an openness and dialogue across beliefs, that other UU whispered in my ear, “Oh!  So he was UU!”

It made me cringe.

Just the other day, on a public UU Facebook forum, someone (presumably UU, since that was the context) posted something about Pope Francis that lauded him for his recent openness.  Again, the comment added by the UU was to wonder aloud if the Pope was “going UU.” (Well, probably more the latter U than the former, because the post had to do with access of all to heaven.)

Of course, this was said in jest.  As lovely as it seems that Francis is, he is still very much acting and reacting within his faith tradition, even if it is more open and liberal than the previous Pope, who interpreted Catholic dogma in shamefully conservative and divisive ways.  In fact, the article notes that Francis’ interpretation of access to heaven is steeped in a long line of Catholic thought and doctrine:

Francis was only affirming the doctrine that Christ redeemed the whole world. Whether people accept that belief is another matter.  In fact, popes going back to Leo XIII in 1891 and up through John Paul II – not to mention authoritative texts from the official Catholic Catechism and the Second Vatican Council – have said the exact same thing Francis did.

Francis has not come out in favor of queer sexuality or women being ordained, not to mention the dissolution of religious hierarchy, so we can all rest assured that the Pope remains Catholic.

It is worth saying again: Francis is making choices that have been wholly available within the Catholic Church’s realm, that have been held and propagated by other Catholics, lay and clergy, much lower on the hierarchical rungs, but present and wholly Catholic nonetheless.  To not acknowledge this is to mute the voices of amazing, justice-seeking, contemplative radical Catholics, some of whom have inspired me religiously, some of whom I am honored to call “friend.”

UUs do not own the rights to open-mindedness about diversity of religious beliefs.  Though we enshrine this as one of our highest values when we call ourselves a covenantal religion, rather than a doctrinal one, we do not always find ourselves living fully into this value or principle.  When we hear something of resonance enacted or proclaimed by someone of another faith and then call them UU, we are doing our version of making them into “anonymous Christians.”

Not only is it a kind of religious hegemony, it is a kind of spiritual manifest destiny, claiming particular thoughts, values, or beliefs as ours and ours alone, even if others have displayed them for centuries or millennia before the arrival of us latecomers.

It plays into an already worrisome and long-standing dynamic of Unitarian Universalist falling for the myth of our own exceptionalism.  In his 2012 Berry Street essay, the Reverend Frederic Muir wrote

One [barrier] is Unitarian Universalist exceptionalism. We hear the inflection of UU exceptionalism from the pulpit, in newcomers’ classes, from Sunday greeters, from those who are earnestly trying to explain our way of religion to the uninformed. We may experience Unitarian Universalism as unique and even saving, but it is not the only way. We must stay conscious of how we explain, defend, and share our perspective lest we come across as elitist, insulting, degrading, even humiliating of others.

This is a compelling piece of writing that I encourage you to read in full.  It was published in the UU World in December, 2012; you can find it here.

Lest it sound like I am lecturing at, rather than reminding us all, I must acknowledge my own fallibility here.  This year I have been serving a small church that is historically Congregational and currently affiliated with United Church of Christ.   They are in a period of discernment about their future, which includes their theological and associational leanings, and have hired two Unitarian Universalists to help with this process.

I chose to preach a sermon that would introduce UU identity markers, hoping to increase the congregation’s explicit familiarity with Unitarian Universalism.  My intent was to identify some distinctions, but also to identify commonalities, of which there are many.  (As I have been heard to say often in this past year, UU and UCC are “kissing cousins.”)  At least one member of the congregation that day felt that I had come across, not as neutrally comparing the two, but with an attitude of superiority.  That was not my intent and after discussing this with the member, I went back to the text to see where my intent did not match my words.  I couldn’t identify it.

So there are two options here: either this was a tender topic (yes) and my sermon did not touch this person in a way that was skillful and (not or) there are ways I talk about our faith that come across as not only proud, but as prideful, and I don’t even know it.

(I do want to assure you that certainly the former is true, and while I must acknowledge from this story that the latter may well be true, I also talk about our faith in ways that are snarky and critical, that reflect my love and loyalty, as well as my bafflement and disappointment.  It’s all there, not just in a single sermon…)

So what are we to do?  What am I to do?  Stay awake.

Let us listen to the voice of William Stafford, whom I claim not as a fellow Unitarian Universalist, but as a fellow Oregonian (neither one of us was born there, but it is our heart home):

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

(excerpt from A Ritual to Read to Each Other)

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8 Responses to Awake People Be Awake: The Risks of UU Exceptionalism and Spiritual Manifest Destiny

  1. Joy says:

    Thanks for this Karen! You’re speaking to something in UUism that has bothered me since childhood: a kind of superiority, even sometimes proselytizing, that has no place in a faith that is ostensibly about finding one’s own path–and should be about that even if that path is outside of UUism.

  2. C. says:

    A thing that I have noticed is that when one gets toward the theologically liberal edges of — well, I won’t say all the major religions, because I’ve certainly not made sufficient study to make such a, hm, universal declaration, but so far all the ones I’ve had a cursory look at appear to tend this way — let’s just say that liberal theologies tend to blur into each other and the further away from core doctrines you get, the blurrier the boundaries become.

    I happen to like blurry and fractally intricate boundaries. This is my home country: the space of being neither/nor/both/and at the same time from different angles. This is one of the places where UUism can be strong if we do it gently and respectfully and well.

    As you said, we don’t always. And there are also a great many people (both in the pews and those who would rather chew off an appendage than set foot in a building that calls itself a church) who want crisp clear boundaries and things (and people) to be one thing or the other, distinctly and always.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have an identity (religious or otherwise) and to have pride in that identity. And one of the bells that rings for me here is a sense of someone whose privileged identity is a little shaken by the notion of One of Those People having pride in an identity that’s outside the privileged group. It’s something I run into from time to time when someone drags out the Unitarian jokes, so many of which are tee-hee-that’s-so-wrong funny and cringeworthy precisely because there is a component of truth to the stereotypes.

    Hm. I need to bookmark this in case I end up doing a sermon on theological plurality this summer… Not sure I am that ambitious. Probably should start seminary first, eh? ;-)

    • irrevspeckay says:

      C– thanks for stopping by. Of course you shouldn’t wait to start seminary to write your sermon! I spent 5 years preaching occasionally as a lay preacher. If you do end up referencing this, I’d love to see it! Good luck to you!

      • C. says:

        My home church is on a New England style ten-month church year, so we are lay led in the summer and I volunteered to take the service the week before I head to Chicago. I have yet to decide whether to do something ambitiously crunchy for the 25 people who are likely to show up on a hot muggy August morning, or just have a nice hymn sing-a-long, declare victory and go home. (I found your blog thru mutual friends from the FB forum, by the way.)

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