Thursday, January 15, 2009

UU Theology - What are the questions that need answering?

Yesterday, January 14, 2008, in a post entitled, Can You Imagine Jesus or Buddha Running For UUA President?, I wrote the following:

If Unitarian Universalism is to ever become a viable religion, it must become a way of life for people and answer life's big existential questions. Its failure to do that makes it increasingly irrelevant and meaningless for potential adherents.

Unitarian Universalism is badly in need of a theology. It's biggest pushes in the past have come from its theologians, and yet I see no modern theologians in UU ranks and if I were President of the UUA one of the things I would do, is take steps to design a plan to put some meat into a theology for a world class religion like Unitarian Universalism can be.

Last night I was skimming the UU blog aggregator and ran across a post from Doug Muder on his blog, Free and Responsible Search which asked for input on the development of new theological studies for lay people.

Doug's article referred to another blog called Lay UU Theology which had an article posted on December 18, 2008 entitled, "What Kind Of Theological Education Do UUs Want or Need?"

Apparently there is grant money available to various groups to provide theological education for lay people from the UUA. It looks like about $150,000.00 worth.

Then, I find that Rev. Ricky Hoyt, on his blog, One More Step, yesterday, January 14, 2009 is making the case that theological training for lay people should be more experiential.

I am very happy to see this kind of effort and thought being devoted to this most important activity. I had no idea this was going on in the Unitarian Universalist world.

The questions being asked by the planners seem to be along the lines of "What kind of theological training do UU lay people want?" This, of course, is an excellent question and some good answers have been offered. I think people want answers to the perennial existential questions so that they can create a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

One person said they are not looking for the answers to "what" questions but rather the "why" questions. I think this is a good way of putting the desire for more meaning and purpose.

The existential questions people want answers to are:

  1. Why was I born?

  2. What is the purpose of my life?

  3. What happens to me when I die?

  4. Why is their suffering in the world?

  5. Why do these hurtful things happen to me?

  6. How can I deal with troublesome and hurtful people?

  7. How can I best raise my children?

  8. What do I owe my parents, siblings, other family members?

  9. How do I assist my children in coming of age?

  10. What is commitment and how do I honor my vows?

  11. Why do I make mistakes and screw up?

  12. How do I give forgiveness to others and obtain forgiveness for myself?

  13. What do I do about injustice?

  14. What is the best way to live life? How do I do it? How do I help others?

  15. How does one find right livelihood, good work?

  16. What is the purpose and proper use of sex?

  17. When I am discouraged, depressed, and despairing, why should I go on?

  18. How can I celebrate and enjoy the happiness in my life?

  19. How do I die with peace and help others die with peace?

In my mind, any religion, any theology that can answer these questions is a winner. And what we want more than anything as human beings is to make sense out of it all. That's what a good theology does, it gives us answers to life's biggest questions, and this is what UUs and all human beings want.

A good theology is a model, a cognitive map, that explains life to us. It tells us how things are and how they ought to be. It validates, it inspires, it provides purpose, meaning, and motivation. It explains our experience to us.

A good theology, more than anything else, is useful. It helps us lead our lives in the most fulfilling and satisfying ways possible. It is more than a philosophy because it facilitates relationship between the self and the transcendent and it is in the facilitation of this relationship that theology earns its money, demonstates its value, provides its benefit as a worthwhile discourse.

This is article #1 in a series on Theology.


  1. P.S. You might want to add the The Emerson Avenger For UUA President?!! blog to your blog roll. After all it pretty much was *your* unique and original words and ideas that nudged me aka encoU*Uraged me to create it, even if I had in fact thought of the idea of running for UUA President as a semi-serioU*Us aka satirical "joke" candidate before you asked me if I had considered running for UUA President. While U*U are at it you might want to give some *serious* consideration to adding some of the other brand-spanking nU*U blogs that arose from that nU*Udge of yours.

    Such as -

    The Robin Edgar For King Of The U*U World?!! blog

    The The *Wonderful* Wizard Of U*Us blog ("in all this excitement" you have got me stU*Utering David. . . ;-)

    and the Robin Edgar For GOd*Emperor Of DU*UNE?!! blog

  2. This is a great list of questions. I think the challenge we often run into with religion isn’t that the questions aren’t answered, but that the answers provided are really, really crummy, such that you just can’t choke them down. Or maybe the answers are good, but the religion’s practitioners don’t appear to live their own theology. Consequently, many people decide they’re better off coming up with their own answers and assembling a personal theology -- sort of an existential do-it-yourself project.

    I suspect the most satisfying scenario would be to have a fully developed personal theology and then find a compatible religion. My guess is this is what motivates many spiritual seekers to give UU a try.

  3. I'm glad you picked up this discussion and I'll be interested to see what kinds of comments your readers have. I'm building a list of blogs that are having this discussion, which I'll post soon at

    I ought to just sit back and let the discussion develop, but I can't stop myself from adding this comment: I agree that UUs -- like everybody else -- are looking for answers to the questions you list. But I don't picture UUism developing a list of answers like a catechism.

    Instead, I'd like us to offer a framework for thinking about these questions, and some techniques of spiritual practice. And I'd like our communities to give us some hope that people using this framework and these practices often reach answers they find satisfactory.

    One of the really cool things about UUism, from my point of view, is that different people find completely different answers, and yet they stay in community with each other.

  4. We already have everything we need; we just need to make better use of it. We have a rich history, excellent past and present theologans, and a tradition based on deeds not creeds. If we practise our seven principles as actions rather than beliefs the outcome resovles all the existential angst ridden questions stated above. Six of our seven principles are community and world focused. Our religion encourages spirituality through social action.

    It takes courage to live your faith through action. So perhaps better questions would be:
    How can I develop the courage required of my fatih?
    How can I stand up for those who have been wronged?
    How can I be a better world citizen?
    Who have I helped today?
    Who have I hurt today?
    What am I doing about the suffering in the world?
    Am I actively forgiving?
    Am I actively grateful?
    Do I have more than I need?
    What am I giving to the world?

    These are the kinds of questions that UUs could be asking.


  5. Dear Friends, In a sense I agree with Anne (Anonymous?)in that I believe UUism already has what it needs. Perhaps we can think of abstracting a theology from what UUism already has to offer. Look at it like an anthropologist coming from the outside to observe a culture. What do UUs do? How do they behave? What occupies their conversations? It's not fair for the AUC among others to expect UUism to have a theology that matches in outline say the Catholic church.I would like to have a definition of "the transcendent" and will be surprised if it isn't another word for "God". Since there are those who have a theology without a "God" we might have to say that a UU theology is in some measure a statement which urges individuals to develop a coherent and reasonable worldview of their own. Whether one uses theistic or non-theistic language one would be required to adhere to certain principles that make people human. Nonviolence comes to mind. Regarding others as oneself. Appreciation for the essential and original fellow feeling that is the condition for civilization.
    I'll have to think about this some more but I don't think there will be a UU theology similar to that of conventional Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, etc. Our closest cousin may be Buddhism which is more concerned with behavior than philosophy: What causes suffering? How can it be ended?
    I am impressed that UUs bring the world into their coffee hours and fearlessly expose their children to the "competition". But therein is the confidence that thereby they will be able to discern the transient from the essential. It is an application of Max Muller's saying, "[They] who know one [religion], know none." Where I think it's the UUs game to lose and they're losing it is in bringing their values to the world. UUism ought to be the fourth official peace church along with the Brethren, Mennonites and Friends. Can you imagine what that would add to the present struggle for world peace and healing?
    I welcome further dialogue.
    All the best,
    Ralph Galen, Community Church of Immigrant City, Lawrence, MA


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