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Postmodern Unitarian Universalism
In the gradual evolution of Protestant Theology toward the left, Unitarians and Universalists have played the role of the vanguard of the revolution. Or, tIn other words, Unitarianism and Universalism have served as the cow-catcher on the front of the theological locomotive: they were the first to clash with and dispense with all the sacred cows, one by one. The mainline denominations would catch up with them on point after point, followed even by the evangelical churches a few generations down the line, but Unitarians and Universalists had already cleared the rails for them. Unitarians and Universalists early took aim at the doctrines of Hell and Trinitarianism. With Nicene and Chalcedonian encumbrances thus sloughed off, they were free next to see new obstacles that stood in the way of "a free man's worship" (Bertrand Russell) and to begin to chip away at these, too. The centrality of Christology, even that of a safely Arian or merely human Christ, was the next bovine roadblock scooped off the track. Theism yielded to mystical Transcendentalism, then to Religious Humanism, then to Secular Humanism.
Unitarian Universalists have decided that the truth is a moving target, or that the motion of the quest for the truth is itself the target: a way, not a destination. In this article I will venture to show how Unitarian Universalism is well on the way into its next evolutionary stage: Postmodernism. This may be more than an abstract exercise in abstract theological taxonomy (or taxidermy!). In his recent article in these pages ("Strained Bedfellows: Pagans, New Agers, and 'Starchy Humanists' in Unitarian Universalism," Religious Humanism, Vol. XXX, #s 1 & 2, Winter/Spring 1996, 7-29), Richard Wayne Lee has documented the increasing influx of New Age thought and practice into once staid and rationalist Unitarian Universalism, as well as the turbulence this development has caused. Lee does a fine job in explaining the change sociologically. Here I seek but to add a philosophical perspective to his his compelling account, showing how, despite the fears of some that UUism is threatened with the loss of its historic identity, in fact, the shift Lee describes can be understood as the next logical stage of UU evolution along its natural trajectory of historical evolution. What we are witnessing is the changeover from Modernism to Postmodernism in Unitarian Universalism.
What was the Christology Socinians rejected? It was the theological scheme that made the preincarnate Christ the Son of God, the divine Word, eternal in existence and partaking of the identical substance with the Father (and the Spirit). The Father made the world through the agency of the fully divine Son, the latter obedient to his Father's every whim. This divine Word appeared in the flesh to reveal the true doctrine of the Father and to gather his elect to his bosom, promising to take them out of this world to a heavenly mansion. This he will someday accomplish at the final Parousia, or appearing, of the Word of God. On that day we will spurn prophecy and fragmentary knowledge for a face-to-face encounter with the Truth. Then all things shall be revealed, and those unbelievers who gladly accepted a lie in place of the truth will perish ignominiously. The righteous will retire to the Camp of the Saints, where there shall no more be any tears. And those without, all Jews and pagans and apostates, heretics, witches, and sinners, can go to Hell where they belong. All this is what the Unitarians and their twins the Universalists (two sharing one hypostasis?) meant to reject and what they paid a high price for rejecting, braving rack and stake. To be more specific, they meant to deny the division of the divine monad, the exaltation of a mere man (albeit a surpassingly great one) as God, the unreasoning acquiescence in ancient dogma and superstition, and the bigotry of sectarianism.
Unitarianism and Universalism progressively followed the trajectory thus set with remarkable consistency. The God thus rescued from Trinitarian refraction was then more thoroughly purged of irrational elements as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was happily traded for the more abstract deity of the philosophers and Deists. Personalism succumbed to abstraction, the merely personal to the Superpersonality of the Absolute, the Oversoul. At length Unitarians and Universalists heeded the prophet-cry of Ludwig Feuerbach and resolved henceforth to seek for the divine attributes where they might truly be found: in human nature, not in some imaginary projection of human perfections onto the heavens. This progressive peeling of the divine onion led to the disclosure that there was no hard center. But this discovery coincided perfectly with the Christ-trajectory. As Christ had been thrust from his Nicene usurpation of the glory of the Father (cf. Philippians 2:6-11!), he began to drop further and further down through the heavens till he became simply one of many saints and prophets in the Unitarian Universalist pantheon, just as we are told Julia Domna had a chapel containing statues of Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jesus of Nazareth.
But as Christ's stock went down, that of normal human beings went up, and it was no coincidence. The Son of Man, a Hebrew term originally denoting Everyman, had been usurped by the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, but now Everyman had wrested it back. Without theism, Christology had turned into Anthropology. Christocentrism became Anthropocentrism, even a kind of Anthroposophy (with apologies to Rudolf Steiner!). Human nature was exalted, Protagoras' dictum prevailing as the Unitarian Universalist creed: "Man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not."
And this meant that Humanism was an alias of Rationalism, for it was the faculty of reasoning that made Homo Sapiens the crown of evolutionary perfection: both apex and ex-ape. Enlightenment Rationalism found its religious home in Unitarianism-Universalism as nowhere else, though the Liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth century and up to the Great War briefly caught up, only to retreat shortly thereafter to the comfortable irrationalism of Neo-Orthodoxy. Unitarian Universalists remained the Righteous Remnant of Rationalism. And one of the cardinal points of Enlightenment Rationalism was the belief that the reasonable person could occupy a God's-eye-view perspective outside the arena of the warring creeds and cultures and perceive the rational-moral essence of them all, perhaps daring even to distill a "natural religion" from all of them. Kant's "religion within the boundaries of reason alone" was such an attempt, though John Locke and others had attempted it, too. Universalism seems to have set out to be such a universal Esperanto of religion, perhaps not a syncretic mix but a synthetic abstraction of the various world faiths. All that a religious Rationalist would consider the best. "World Bibles" were compiled from this perspective, and they tended to major in ethics and Golden Rules with little theology in evidence.
Surely the Twin Tribes had journeyed far from the house of bondage and the fleshpots of supernaturalism and Trinitarianism. But perhaps not so far after all. Is it possible that they had secreted away certain cherished idols, carrying them with them on the way? I believe so, and it is the Postmodernist critique of Enlightenment modernity, as well as Jacques Derrida's deconstruction of Western "presence metaphysics" that make it possible to detect this.
Derrida has traced out the fundamental, sometimes unacknowledged axioms of what he calls presence metaphysics. He begins with Plato and his belief that the mind is by nature a clear mirror apprehending the self-evident truth. On the highest level of contemplation the trained mind, having polished its mirror to perfect clarity, beholds the essences and forms of things. The apprehension of the light of truth is immediate, the mind having fled the allegorical cave where one only inferred and guessed at the truth, seeing only its shadows. No, truth was deemed immediately present to the mind. One simply saw it with the unimpaired eye of the mind.
Derrida (in his seminal essay
"Plato's Pharmacy") next focuses on Plato's polemic against writing
as a medium of communication inferior to and subversive of vocal speech. Only
the latter, Plato insisted, can maintain and convey the immediacy of the speaker's
grasp of truth with an immediacy of its own. That is, Plato says, the speaker
can almost telepathically convey what he wants to say, what he knows, to the
mind of the hearer by well chosen words sped on their way by means of
appropriate facial expressions, tones of voice, oratorical flourishes, hand
motions, opportunities to double back and explain. The speaker, he says, is
"the father of the word" and sends his utterance on its way to do its
work. The spoken word says "Father, I go," and indeed goes. But the
written word, the tract, the treatise, the epistle, says, "Father, I
go," but then does not go. That is, the written word, lacking the presence
of the speaker, sent on its way like the community of
All this Derrida calls logocentrism or the Metaphysics of Presence. It is that set of assumptions which has allowed philosophers to exempt their discursive texts from the slings and arrows mere literature is heir to. Philosophers have pretended to have immediate rational access to the Truth and to be able to communicate it to their students in speech, of if need be, in written texts, which strive to mirror speech, as when Plato, Berkeley, Hume and others adopt the dialogue format in their writings. Naive in our confidence that what seems "clear and distinct" in our minds must be the truth (Descartes), we believe we can trust our speculations, following in the footsteps of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz who naively assumed they could reason out reality just as they systematized mathematics, optics, and grammar. We assume the picture we paint inside our head mirrors the reality outside it.
Logocentrism has an architectonic bias as well. It insists that the truth always be a symmetrical system of abstract propositions or axioms, and not, say, a narrative or an experience. And we have limited patience with those who will not or cannot look at things the way we do: the truth seems so clear and distinct, so immediately present to us, we can only imagine our opponents are intellectually lazy or perverse. If they will not step into the neutral commons of rational objectivity as we define it, we write them off as bigots and fundamentalists of this stripe or that. Plato, remember, dreamed of an ideal Republic ruled by Truth-seeing philosopher kings who would not hesitate to execute heretics. Rationalism, then, is an "ism," a dogma, like all its competitors.
Derrida points the finger at Plato as the father of the logocentric tradition in Western philosophy, but he makes Christianity the highest exaltation of logocentrism, logocentrism incarnate, as it were. The Creator God is quite literally the Father of the Word. And the Word is God, which is to say that the order of knowing is imagined as being identical with the order of being, the central assumption of Presence Metaphysics. The Platonic terms have been hypostatized, have become divine persons. What are the divine hypostases but products of the hypostatization fallacy bemoaned by logicians? Every crucial element of the Christian salvation epic can be understood as a hypostatization of logocentric metaphysics. When the Son of Man goes forth as the sower sowing the word of God, we have a dramatization of the Stoic doctrine of the spermatikoi logoi, the seeds of rational order permeating all things to give them their intelligible form. This tendency reaches its utmost extreme in Valentinian Gnosticism, where the Demiurge seizes the sparks of divine light from the Pleroma, the Fullness of Divine Presence.
When Jesus, the Incarnate Word, silences the demons of madness because they know who he is, what we have is the attempt of logocentrism to suppress the truth that reason is but the tip of the iceberg that is madness. When Jesus the Logos is exalted as the Pantocrator from whom all authority stems in heaven and on earth, what we are really dealing with is the exaltation of rationalism over all other forms of perception, and with the centered systematizing of reality according to the dictates of an architectonic system. When belief in the gospel truth is made the criterion of salvation, we are saying that ideas and abstractions are the ultimate truth, the Water of Life which to imbibe is to attain unto the ultimate level of reality. To say that human beings are made in the image of God is to project anthropocentric arrogance onto the cosmos, to say "reality is just like us."
And it is no accident that logocentric Christian faith has been androcentric as well, male-centered. Feminist critics speak of phallocentrism, the imposition of a male point of view as the filter of all thought and the embrace of it by women as a kind of false consciousness. Derrida sees that phallocentrism and logocentrism are one, since the exaltation of reason (or potentially anything else) as the single center is a male tendency, a game of "King of the Hill," where only a single victor is left standing as the most powerful. Originally this was an evolutionary mechanism to assure the survival of the hardiest genes: the winner in the duel of suitors became the bull ape in charge of the herd with access to all the females. All talk of a supreme value or meaning-center is "phallogocentrism": a reflection of the victorious ape pounding its chest. Christianity is completely phallogocentric. If the eternal reason according to which all things were created is male, if the Word is the Son, then the universe is ipso facto defined in male terms. And the notion of the Word being the true son, of one nature with the father, is simply the old male paternity anxiety, the care that one's child be truly one's own, one's true-bred genetic stock, homoousias. Nicea was male metaphysics from start to finish. And the eschatology of Christianity? When the Parousia of the Logos appears? Here is the hope that meaning will finally issue from texts. And it will be a male meaning: "He shall rule the nations with a rod of iron," and what is that sceptre but the phallus of the Logos?
Just as Christian Christology and theism were found wanting by earlier generations of Socinians, Arians, Unitarians, and Universalists, the presence metaphysics of logocentrism has been repudiated by a number of thinkers, especially Jacques Derrida. Derrida attacks traditional presence metaphysics at many points. Here are a few that I find most illuminating.
He mounts a frontal assault on the key assumption of Rationalism by denying Descartes's claim that we truly know anything that is clearly and distinctly present to the conscious mind. He is shattering what traditional philosophy sometimes called the mind as "the mirror of nature" (cf. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature). There is no pure and unadulterated presence. There is no bare, uninterpreted reality which the mind is able to confront. We always receive the world as inscribed with some prescribed grid of meaning. What confronts us has already been mediated. It stands always already at one remove from us, not really "present" to us at all. What seems obvious to us only seems so because it is force-fed through culturally-prescribed categories and expectations. There is no pure nature, for example, since "nature" is always a projection from culture, the hypothetical extrapolation of anthropologists or philosophers, and thus the "nature" against which culture is so often unfavorably measured is actually a function of the particular theorist's philosophy or theory.
Even the experience of "the present
moment" is not real, metaphysical presence. It is instead derived, a
product with visible seams, an experience stitched together (as Dilthey already recognized) from the past and the future.
The present moment would be a blank slate without echoes of our recollection of
the past and anticipations of the future. The "pure" present is
actually a composite, the result of a hidden process of relation. Ironically,
Derrida denies that speech is exempt from the differance factor any more than writing is. The speaker cannot be sure he will communicate his intention and very often does not, as any teacher or preacher knows. The very advantage speech possesses over writing, the opportunity to backtrack and clarify, is itself evidence of the inherently ambiguous character of all language whether written or spoken. Else why should clarification be necessary in the first place? The reason all language is ambiguous and indeterminate of meaning, despite the intention of the speaker/writer or the interpretation of the hearer/reader, is the differential nature of meaning. We assume that the meaning of words is referential, words keyed to corresponding things. But as Ferdinand de Saussure has argued, the meaning of words is primarily differential. They are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The shape of each is determined by nothing other than its complementary difference from the adjacent pieces. Words mean this because they do not mean that. The signifier "apple" refers not so much to the familiar piece of fruit as its "signified," but rather (by way of negation) to the meanings of signifiers like "pear," "tomato," "cantaloupe," "apall," "appeal," or "ape." Signifiers receive their meanings by way of differentiation from the other possibilities that they might mean. I can recognize my wife because of her uniqueness, i.e., what differentiates her from all the other women I see.
The fact of differance has far-reaching implications, and not only for linguistics. It implies two major things for theology. First there can be no Transcendental Signified, no Reality, no Meaning beyond language, except perhaps meaningless prime matter of some sort, or some Buddhistic Suchness about which nothing can be said. Second, there can be no Ground of Being, no "fundamental" or foundational meaning. This is because every theory of the meaning of things is already infected with the virus of differance, the uncontrollable free play of language, the dissemination of meaning. Every use of language unleashes uncontrollable forces of signification that threaten to undermine every intended meaning. Meaning is never present to us, never has a Parousia, because it is always slipping away, draining off, into these cracks between possible meanings. Indeed, this is just where Derrida's controversial hermeneutics of Deconstruction arises. Deconstruction traces out the countersignature of every text whereby it may be shown to argue at cross-purposes with it's author's intention.
Tillich came close to seeing how the very Ground of Being he liked to talk about was actually impossible when he defined Being as the affirmation of itself over against Non-Being. In other words, it is grounded on the abyss of differance between itself and its opposite. The earth, as Isaiah said, is hung upon the void.
If God is dead for Deconstruction, so is "Man," Descartes's "thinking thing," the Invictus-self of the Enlightenment. Postmodernists learn from Freud that what we call the self is actually the epiphenomenon of subterranean, never-experienced processes in the subconscious. We form our self-concept as we hear our opinions spoken. We are at least as much audience as actor, as George Herbert Meade and Peter Berger have also argued. As writers we are readers of what our creative genius produces. We are language speaking itself. The self if the a posteriori perceiver, not the a priori actor.
Even the axioms of reason are the rules of a game imposed on the ambiguous chaos of the world. The consistency of logic is the consistency of the rules of a game, tautologous, self-referential, the rules of the order of knowing, not necessarily of the order of being. It is the logocentric bias that makes us think otherwise. And the privilege of the supposedly neutral "common ground" from which superior Olympian position Enlightenment Man deigned to judge and mediate all cultures and beliefs turns out to be merely one more among many competing plausibility structures. Having no common ground with rival paradigms, such as the epistemology of militant Islam, of Flat-Earthism or National Socialism, it cannot possibly demonstrate its superiority to them. Indeed it becomes meaningless to claim superiority over them.
Postmodern Unitarian Universalism
Universalism seems to be the very incarnation of the Enlightenment paradigm of
Rationalism, Humanism, and Logocentrism. And even more
ironically, insofar as Chalcedonian Christology was simply a hypostatization of
logocentric presence metaphysics, rationalistic
Humanism remains essentially just as Chalcedonian as Orthodox Christianity. To
finally purify itself of Chalcedonianism, to purge
itself at long last from every vestige of Athanasian
Christological dogma, Unitarian Universalist theology
must needs empty itself too of Rationalism, Humanism, and its bias toward a
single "unitarian" synthesis point, or
Ultimate Concern. "Universalism" must give way to multiversalism or pluriversalism.
And that, I contend, is precisely what is happening with the emergence of New
Age, Christian, Pagan, Jewish, and Buddhist factions within Unitarian
Universalism. Breaking the hegemony of logocentrism
means that there can be no one orthodoxy, and of
course Unitarian Universalists have long upheld
diversity and pluralism in doctrine. Similarly, the "Unitarian" tag
long ago lost the connotation of that monotheism its adherents once sought to
free from Trinitarian confusions. Humanism made the monotheistic meaning of
"Unitarian" obsolete. Many Unitarians decided the One God was a much
a groundless figment of priestcraft as the Three had
been. And now the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist
Pagans represent an altogether different approach to
breaking the monotheistic hammer lock. They seek to restore the polytheism of
Today a rapidly increasing number of Unitarian Universalists feel the need to transcend (as Schleiermacher, Emerson, and Parker did) the sometimes dry moralism of Kant's "religion within the bounds of reason alone," lacking any mystical, spiritual dimension. Many, as Kenneth Patton did, embrace what some call "ecstatic naturalism," where it is the divine spirit, as Feuerbach said, manifest in human arts and glories that catches away the breath and catches one up to the third heaven. The poems of Rilke and Hölderlin are good examples of ecstatic naturalism, fragments of true inspiration, where the Muse of the subconscious far transcends left-brained rationalism. All this represents, not a repudiation of reason, far from it, but rather a dethronement of logocentrism.
When logocentrism reigns no more, one can feel free to explore spiritual experiences without having to explain them and to account for them first. One need only approach them in the spirit of phenomenology, bracketing the ontological question, temporarily and willingly suspending disbelief as one does in a playhouse or a movie theatre. One may navigate the experience as an experience, whatever may or may not lie "behind" it. As Nagarjuna said, one need not despise that which one suspects to be ultimately phantasmal, so long as one does not mistake it for more than a pleasant phantom.
Reason and rational scrutiny must remain our first line of defense against the resurgent superstition of much of the New Age Movement (and here he continues proudly to play our role as sentinels against religious hokum and priestcraft). But we will heed the advice of Paul Feyerabend and embrace the methodological axiom of "counter-inductivity," exploring hypotheses (in this case, religious experiences) not derivable from or even consistent with our base-line theoretical model of rationalism. We may, for example, insist on historical criticism as applied to the miracle-legends of the biblical text, yet be open to visionary experiences ourselves.
The same open-ended, distinctly un-synthesized pluralism seems to mark the emerging UU stance toward the various historic world religions. There is no urgency to figure out a synthesis, an abstraction of what we deem the essence of all the religions (which no single religion would recognize or accept), or to form a syncretism, a new super-religion collecting parts of this and that and hybridizing them into a new system, as the New Age Movement does. Rather, UU ministers and congregations, in their experiments with Sufism or Zen, seem to have adopted the principle of bricolage. This term for the unsystematic ad hoc technique of the handyman who patches and contrives a solution from whatever odd bits he may have available, has been adopted by Claude Levi-Strauss and Jacques Derrida to denote the use of leftover techniques, individual ideas or methodologies, from systems that have, as wholes, been deconstructed and dismantled, much as Newton was able to salvage parts of Kepler's earlier paradigm. In our case bricolage seems to mean the jury-rigging of whatever spiritual practices or ideas happen to appeal to us, with no attempt to form any kind of comprehensive system. Without logocentric presuppositions, no synthetic system of truth is desirable or possible, so why waste time building one? In the wake of the wreck of all systems of knowledge, one can only pick up what glittering bits of debris as catch one's eye, like a magpie decorating her nest.
The abandonment of Humanism is perhaps the bitterest pill to swallow, as witness the rancor documented by Richard Wayne Lee. Perhaps we need only speak of a chastened Humanism, just as Henry Pitney van Dusen once spoke of a chastened Liberalism in the wake of Neo-Orthodoxy. Indeed I see no retreat from our Protagorean axiom "Humanity is the measure of all things." In fact, in light of the Postmodernist disclosure of the self as a rhetorical construct, this maxim might take on a new meaning. True, we can no longer flatter ourselves simply to be Descartes's "thinking thing," a pure mirror that sees the light of truth undimmed. Perhaps we might rather adopt some sort of Buddhist "no-self" doctrine.
We are less like Aristotle's "thought thinking itself" (Descartes's self concept was pretty much a microcosmic miniature of this God-concept) than "language speaking itself." We are listeners as well as speakers in the same moment, passive in the very moment of activity. We do not measure by use of sovereign reason; rather we are the measuring rod, a tool both of language and of the coded text of the subconsciousness that incarnates language. We must learn to read ourselves. The last frontier is within, that vast ocean of text of which the human self is the epiphenomenon. Humanism, then, is not the sovereign judgment by human selves of everything else. Rather, "the proper study of mankind is man." We must advance to square one as Socrates did, to admit our unwisdom before true wisdom can be ours. We are not blank slates, much less polished mirrors. We are clay tablets already inscribed to the margins, palimpsests with many layers of inscription. We must get down to business decoding that text. And what if that were the best way to understand the continual self-examination beloved of UUs? Instead of denoting a failure of nerve, a loss of mission, what if it denoted an altogether proper turn inward?
In the course of the present essay I have suggested that, thanks to the disclosures of the Postmodernist deconstruction of Presence Metaphysics, we can recognize that in their very embrace of Rationalism, Humanism, a unity of Ultimate Concern and a universal faith, Unitarian Universalism retained the essence of the Nicene-Chalcedonian Christo-theology it sought to reject. The most illuminating way to understand the current shift to neo-Christian, pagan, New Age and other spiritualities in the UU camp is as a natural and inevitable transition to a Postmodernist stance, the next logical step in the ongoing evolution of Unitarian Universalism.
Robert M Price
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