Saturday, July 25, 2009


Standing in the shadow of the Transcendentalist legacy, Unitarian Universalism frequently prioritizes individual experience over church dogma and scriptural revelation. Clarifying this approach, Eliza Thayer Clapp described 'Emerson's Method' as a search for the presence and authority of spiritual law in one’s own consciousness, which is at one in nature and with God, and consequently divine in essence and infallible in its moral guidance. Doing theology, then, begins with the personal, the phenomenological, the intuitive, the guttural, the experiential.

Derridean theorist Avital Ronell raises an important caveat, however, for the continuation of this hermeneutic into the present. In effect, she calls our notion of experience into question: what does experience look like today? Consider, for example, our obsession with living a virtual life through Facebook and Twitter, or the way we now take photographs and immediately look at them; we have conceded to a "traumatic theory of existence, which is to say you’re not truly present to your experience.”

What does an experience-based faith mean when “experience as such no longer carries authority”? Are we worshipping the God of the LCD screen?

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Worth and Dignity

Following his conversion from Unitarianism to Roman Catholicism, Orestes Brownson maintained a voice in the press through his highly opinionated publication Brownson’s Quarterly Review. With the onslaught of the Fugitive Slave Act and the tenuous Compromise of 1850, Brownson increasingly vocalized his long-standing (Unitarian?) belief in the unity of the races and the inherent worth of human life, even as his words challenged the views of his intended audience. Critiquing the complacent (and hence complicit) position of his fellow religionists, Brownson opined: "the friends of religion seem to be more oppressed with the weakness and degeneracy of human nature, than encouraged by a sense of its innate greatness and dignity" (The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, 274).

Despite inevitable (and occasionally apt) blogosphere nitpicking, the UUA's newest campaign to Stand on the Side of Love courageously promotes "respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person" in the midst of countless incidents of exclusion, oppression and violence based on people’s identities. Much as Brownson heard the quiet promise of goodness amidst racial apartheid, so too this faith again chooses to put its trust in hope. May it be so.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Difficult Unity of Inclusion

Religion and architecture - strange bedfellows, perhaps. Yet, I find Robert Venturi's 1966 publication entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture especially relevant to and descriptive of the Unitarian Universalist faith project. Critiquing the reductive nature of corporate modernist design, Venturi advocates for a “difficult unity of inclusion,” thereby praising the poetic value of ambiguity in architectural construction. He suggests that aesthetic simplicity (not to be confused with simpleness or over-simplification) derives from inner complexity (e.g. the Doric temple, Alvar Aalto, Louis Kahn, etc.). He writes:

I prefer "both-and" to "either-or," black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and Workable in several ways at once.

Is this not the thrust of Unitarian Universalist religion - unity in multiplicity, beauty in messiness, faith amidst dynamic belief? Just as Venturi's architecture of complexity "must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion," so too Unitarian Universalists promote a faith that radically affirms and welcomes specificities, contingencies and eclecticisms - that sees a simple grace in hybrids and composites - that values the struggle (and explicit mess) of including more, over the ease (and hidden violence) of including fewer.

This, then, embodies the Spirit of our denomination:

In fact, the connection is already manifest: First Unitarian Church, Rochester, New York, by Louis I. Kahn

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