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Theology for a Secular Age (II)
Governance for Congregations, Leadership Development

General Assembly 2009 Event 3008
UU University Theology Track, Part II

< Part I

On Thursday afternoon, the Rev. Galen Guengerich had presented his vision of the challenge facing Unitarian Universalist (UU) theology: to find "a third way between competing fundamentalisms of the left and right," a way that rejects the destructive elements of traditional religion while not becoming cynical or anti-religious. He committed himself to using methods of evidence and reason (rather than revelation) to establish facts about the observable world, and put forward a theology (which he attributed to Alfred North Whitehead) in which God participates in the world through us, rather than acting directly on the world in a supernatural fashion.

In this second workshop in this track, Guengerich described how faith and religion fit into this theology, and the kind of community and ethics that this religion leads to and supports.


The day began with a 45-minute worship service featuring the University of Utah Singers. In his homily, "In Search of the Sublime," Guengerich set up the first of the day's topics: religious experience. He associated the particular experience he examined—the sublime—with feelings of awe and admiration, and described how it arises in both religious and secular settings. His initial example (a secular choir performing a Mozart mass at Carnegie Hall) captured the religious ambiguity of the sublime. He also described it as a reaction to vast natural vistas. An experience of the sublime impresses upon us (in a positive way) the necessity of yielding to realities bigger than ourselves.

Before addressing the purpose of faith and the role of religion, Guengerich revisited a question he had been asked the previous day: Why use the word God at all? "I believe that the word God, and the symbol of the supernatural power and infallible source of revelation that it represents, is the single most powerful force in this struggle between fundamentalism and pluralism," he argued. "And I am simply unwilling to let the opposition have full access to a symbol of that kind. If we cede to them the word God and basically say, 'God is what you say God is, we simply think that's wrong,' we have ceded the battle as far as I'm concerned."

In response to those who come to us with wounds that the word God aggravates, he proposed that the goal should be to help heal those wounds, and not to simply avoid or deny those wounds by not saying "God."

Faith and Religion

If religion, and religious beliefs and practices, are not simply given to us by divine revelation, how are we to choose and evaluate them? Guengerich proposed using the standard defined by William James: that they be judged by their effects—for good or ill—on their practitioners' actions, and ultimately by the effects those actions have on the world. From Whitehead he adopted the idea that transformation is the proper goal of religion: "to make yourself a better person and the world a better place."

A video excerpt from Bill Moyers' interview with philosopher Colin McGinn presented a common negative view of faith as a kind of wishful thinking. "Anybody who doesn't think that you should be organizing your beliefs according to your wishes," McGinn said, "won't be very impressed by that."

Guengerich went on to define faith differently, as a commitment to action rather than a belief about facts. "Faith is a commitment to live as if certain things are true, and thereby help to make them so," he said. "Faith is a commitment to live as if life is a wondrous mystery, as if life is good, as if love is divine, as if we are responsible for the well-being of those around us. ...Faith is a leap of the moral imagination that connects the world as it is to the world as it might become."

Religion is the way of living necessary to sustain faith. It includes stories, symbols, songs, rituals, and spiritual practices. Referring to a branch of science called contemplative neuroscience and the book The Mindful Brain, by Daniel Siegel, Guengenrich explained the necessity of religion like this: "Our brains cannot be changed merely by adding new information or knowledge. What is required is new behaviors, a new way of living."

He acknowledged that the practices of a religion can become ends in themselves, and that such rigid religions can be obstacles to transformation. But the answer is not to do away with religion, but to constantly renew it.

Religious Community

Guengerich asserts that "You can be spiritual by yourself, but you can only be religious within a community of faith." Common worship is an important way that a religious community comes together to invoke its fundamental religious experiences and recall the commitments that make up its faith.

For him, the fundamental UU religious experience is gratitude, which he said should be "the defining element of our faith," comparable to submission in Islam or love in Christianity. He called for a discipline of gratitude that regularly recalls attention to "our utter dependence."


The discipline of gratitude can support an ethic of gratitude, that leads to a sense of duty and responsibility. More precisely, "The ethic of gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return. It is our duty to foster the kind of environment we want to take in and thereby become."

Guengerich reviewed how traditional religions rooted their ethics and moral rules in revelation, and examined the basic ethical ideas of Aristotle, Kant, and the utilitarians. He observed that "It's almost always hard to calculate the greatest good for the greatest number and, besides, sometimes ethics has to be driven not by what's good for most of the people most of the time, but what works for people who otherwise would be left out. ...And we as human beings are more than just rational beings. We need an ethical standard that resonates with our whole being, as well as with the world we live in."

He rejected freedom as a goal, saying that while it was a necessary political right, by itself it does not commit us to any larger purpose.

As an example of a religious impulse not fundamentally rational, Guengerich pointed to the experience of beauty. He read the poem "Opinion," by Baron Wormser, focusing on the question: "What would happen if I heeded the admonitions of beauty?"

Ethically, he proposed, beauty leads us towards ideals of fairness and motivates us to achieve those ideals. Expanding on this theme, he noted that "To be swept away by aspiration of a Bach oratorio is to become tirelessly impatient with a world where so many children have so little hope. ...To be riveted by the sight of an exuberantly colored butterfly is to know that we must stand strong against those who would crush the fragile and oppress the weak."

Following John Rawls, Guengerich described two principles that implement fairness: that all should have equal liberty, and that inequalities should be distributed to the greatest advantage of those currently less well off. "We are constituted by the world we live in," he observes. "This means that we are both vulnerable and responsible. Because we could at any time befall the misfortunes that have come to others, we are responsible to come to their aid, not merely to ease their suffering, but make the world safer and better for us as well."

He listed three areas where the ethic of gratitude leads to concerns different from traditional religious codes: disadvantaged peoples (such as the victims of racism, sexism, and homophobia), the treatment of the plants and animals that sustain us, and care of the environment.

Guengerich closed his presentation with the metaphor of the quantum leap, which is the smallest change possible for an electron. Even vast physical changes are accumulations of these minimal changes. In the same way, the changes we are capable of bringing about may seem small, but vast social changes can only be made of these small quantum leaps.

Reported by Doug  Muder; edited by Bill Lewis.

Seven Questions

The seven questions in the course outline for this workshop are:

  1. How do we know what we most truly know?
  2. What is the nature of existence and how do we fit into the picture?
  3. What in the world is divine—if anything?
  4. What is the uniquely human challenge?
  5. What are the purpose of faith and the role of religion?
  6. What does it mean to be a religious community?
  7. How shall we live in order to transform ourselves and the world?

The first four questions were discussed on Thursday.