I had expected the Theology Track of UU University (led by Galen Guengerich) to be a survey of UU thought, or perhaps a how-to workshop along the lines of Building Your Own Theology. Instead it is more of a proof-of-concept, an example of how one UU theologian answers the hard questions. Organized this way, it gains in depth what it loses in breadth, and combats by example the widespread belief that theological questions are unanswerable.

In theology, however, I find the questions are almost always more interesting than the answers, and sometimes the frame is more interesting than the picture it surrounds. When my congregation’s Coming-of-Age class reads its credos to us each year, I always try to listen “between the words” to hear what questions our teens thought they needed to answer. Those implicit questions often tell me more about their thinking than their explicit statements of belief.

I found myself taking the same approach to this session. What set of problems does Rev. Guengerich believe a UU theology needs to address?

Guengerich positioned his theology between “competing fundamentalisms of left and right” — more specifically between:

  • A traditional people-of-the-Book theology, in which beliefs about facts-in-the-world are based on scripture, clerical authority, and revelation.
  • A radical anti-religious position as exemplified by Sam HarrisThe End of Faith or Bill Maher’s movie Religulous. (We were shown the conclusion of Religulous, in which Maher says religious people need to “grow up or die”.)

Guengerich denied at the outset that the purpose of this track was to “fix UUism”, but much of what he had to say addressed two issues: religious freedom as an end in itself, and an atomistic sense of individualism.

“Freedom to believe what you want,” he said, “is like describing the kind of house you don’t what to live in. You can live wherever you want, but you still have to live somewhere.” Just as wherever-you-want is not a place, freedom is not a theology.

Once freed from traditional notions of God and Satan, he said, “the human tendency is to believe we are on our own.” But this denial of interdependence and assertion of self-reliance and self-sufficiency is “the fundamental human sin.”

The answers Guengerich gave on Day 1 came largely from two sources: John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead. From Dewey he took the idea that the questioning, evidence-seeking methods of science and reason should establish what facts are true, leaving theology to “interpret our experience and account for its meaning.” This is necessary, Guengerich said, because “in the modern world none of us is entitled to our own set of facts.” From Whitehead he took a cosmology in which everything is in relationship with everything else, and the vision of a God that perceives, remembers, and creates possibilities, but does not act in the world except through humans.

The session was organized as a multi-media presentation. Occasionally we sang or spoke to a neighbor or stretched, and we could write questions for Guengerich on index cards, but primarily we either listened to him speak or watched videos on two large screens.

According to the distributed notes, Day 2 will center on three questions: What are the purpose of faith and the role of religion? What does it mean to be a religious community? How shall we live in order to transform ourselves and the world?

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doug muder


  1. Rex Styzens

    Doug, I appreciate your strategy for listening in terms of the unstated (perhaps) questions a speaker may be addressing.

    I mentioned the topic of ministerial competence in one of yesterdays posts. I recently imagined what I would like to have learned when I went to theological school. These are the topics I wish I had been able to relate to when I finished. In fact, except for J.L. Adams influence on the social gospel, none of them were even addressed. So these are what I would like to be able to ask a student who enters in order to compare them with what the same student thinks when he/she graduates.

    1. What have you decided about the death of God?
    2. What have you decided about immortality?
    3. What have you decided about the meaning of spirit?
    4. What have you decided about the message of personal sacrifice?
    5. What have you decided about the written sources of inspiration?
    6. What have you decided about the influence of Romanticism on religion?
    7. What have you decided about the influence of the Enlightenment on religion?
    8. What have you decided about the topic of religious heresy?
    9. What have you decided about religion and social change?
    10. What have you decided about the possibility of moral character?

    It is the last of those that I would still have the hardest time answering.


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