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Introduction, Workshop 10: Thandeka

In "What Moves Us," a Tapestry of Faith program

We love beyond belief. — Thandeka

This workshop introduces the Rev. Dr. Thandeka, author of the What Moves Us program, and her Unitarian Universalist Theology of Personal Experience. In this workshop, Thandeka presents in her own words the key assumptions that guided her creation of this Tapestry of Faith theology program.

Thandeka is cited by Gary Dorrien, author of The Making of American Liberal Theology, as one of our most influential contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologians. Participants will discover why she believes that small group ministry programs in our congregations are one of the most effective ways of practicing Unitarian Universalist theology today.

Note: Thandeka will sometimes refer to herself as "the author" when talking about her own role as creator of her Unitarian Universalist Theology of Personal Experience. — the Editors

Our personal faith as Unitarian Universalists begins with our own life experiences. This is a conclusion of the 2005 Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) Commission on Appraisal Report, "Engaging Our Theological Diversity," which found that "almost universally among UUs, personal experience is considered the most important source of religious conviction." The report calls for "theological literacy," inviting us to deepen and clarify our theological understanding of personal experience "individually and collectively." To this end, we must do two things, says Thandeka: We must investigate what personal experience means for us today as Unitarian Universalists and we must explore how our individual personal experiences become Unitarian Universalist religious convictions. Thandeka developed her Unitarian Universalist Theology of Personal Experience to help us achieve these goals.

Thus Thandeka's basic question for this workshop: What is it about personal experience that not only establishes the common ground of our Unitarian Universalist faith convictions as one religious people, but also, at the same time, shows us how our amazing theological diversity is able to thrive? As Thandeka reminds us, Unitarian Universalist theists cite personal experience to affirm the sanctity of God. Unitarian Universalist humanists, on the other hand, use personal experience to affirm the sanctity of human life. Others among us use personal experiences to affirm their Pagan, Buddhist, agnostic, Christian, or Jewish claims about the fundamental nature, value, and meaning of their lives. Others use personal experience to define themselves simply as Unitarian Universalist. So what binds us together?

Thandeka's answer: We love beyond belief. Our liberal faith tradition encourages us to embrace persons rather than creeds, and so we endeavor ever anew as Unitarian Universalists to love others beyond their own beliefs. Our Sunday morning worship services and small group ministry programs endeavor ever anew to create an ethos of care and compassion in which we feel loved beyond belief. This is why our personal experience of love beyond belief is the binding principle of our faith, says Thandeka. It is the major source of our religious unity and our theological diversity.

Is she right? Does her Unitarian Universalist Theology of Personal Experience show us what we feel beyond belief? Is it, as she claims, "love beyond belief"? Moreover, does the author's theology help us understand how the personal experience of love beyond belief enables our theological diversity and our shared identity as Unitarian Universalists to thrive? Finally, does her claim that "we love beyond belief" ring true? Participants develop their own answers to these questions as the workshop unfolds.

Before leading this workshop, review the Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters found in the program Introduction.

Preparing to lead this workshop

Read three stories from Thandeka: "Thandeka's Change of Heart," "A Lonely Soul in Community," and "Doctrinal Freedom" (including the author's reflections). Read Handout 2, Thandeka's Theology of Personal Experience. Use the exercises and questions that follow to help you understand the reading.

Change of Heart

First, use this three-part exercise to help you reflect on personal experience of a change of heart:

1. Recall an occasion when you were able to create a shift in your emotional mood from downcast to uplifted — even if for just a few hours- through an experience such as listening to music, watching a movie, play, or sporting event, or undertaking some other entertaining adventure.

2. Reflect on and describe in your theology journal the ways in which you knew that your emotional state was shifting and then positively altered. What did the shift feel like? Did you, for example, feel warmer or cooler? Did you stop sweating or crying? Did your pulse rate noticeably slow down? Did you begin to smile or laugh? Be as precise as possible about the ways in which you discerned that your internal emotional mood was indeed shifting and then in the end, had shifted in a positive and uplifting manner.

3. Note that the author calls the uplifting shift in your emotional life: a "change of heart." Would you describe your experience as a change of heart? If so, why? If not, explain why and then give your own experience of a positive shift in your emotional state a name that makes sense to you. If you have given your experience of emotional uplift a different name, substitute this name for the author's term "change of heart" to describe your personal experience of a shift in emotions from downcast to uplift.

Three Elements of Personal Experience

The author uses three stories with further reflections to highlight the three elements she believes are entailed in the personal experience of love beyond belief as a major source of religious convictions for Unitarian Universalists:

(1) A change of heart,

(2) An ethos of care and compassion, and

(3) Doctrinal freedom

The first story, "Thandeka's Change of Heart," focuses on the individual. It recounts how the author experienced a change of heart.

The second story, "A Lonely Soul in Community," and the reflections that follow it focus on the feelings of the individual's change of heart within a Unitarian Universalist community setting. To this end, the story spotlights the ethos of care and compassion created by a Unitarian Universalist religious community.

The third story, "Doctrinal Freedom," focuses on the intellectual zone of doctrinal freedom that enables individuals to draw upon various religious and scientific sources to explain how their own transformed feelings become personal Unitarian Universalist religious convictions.

In sum, these three stories (with their reflections) focus our attention on the three constitutive elements of personal experience Thandeka identifies in her Unitarian Universalist Theology of Personal Experience: (1) a change of heart, (2) a community matrix of care and compassion, and (3) a zone of doctrinal freedom that sanctions and enables persons to draw on different theological, religious, scientific, and spiritual resources to explain the way their change of heart becomes a Unitarian Universalist religious sentiment or conviction. Thandeka calls this threefold content and structure of personal experience for Unitarian Universalists "love beyond belief."

Consider these questions:

Thandeka's Three Elements of Personal Experience

  • Thandeka uses these stories to highlight three basic elements that make personal experience a major source of Unitarian Universalist religious convictions: (1) a personal change of heart, (2) a community matrix of care and compassion, and (3) a zone of doctrinal freedom that encourages theological diversity when explaining how one's own change of heart became a Unitarian Universalist religious sentiment or conviction. How would you amend Thandeka's list of essential elements in order to explain more fully why personal experience is a major source of your own religious convictions as a Unitarian Universalist? Explain in detail.

Unitarian Universalist Congregational Responses to a Change of Heart

  • During a Sunday morning Unitarian Universalist service in your congregation do the lighting of the chalice, the use of music and singing, invitations to silent meditation or prayer, or other elements of the service affect your mood? If so, how? Do you believe that any, most or all of these kinds of liturgical activities (or the coffee hour following the service) create certain kinds of emotional feelings within you and the rest of the community? If so, which ones? If this is the case, do you believe this emotional ethos is by design or accident?
  • Think of two or three Unitarian Universalists in your own congregation who have theological standpoints very different from your own. What do you think enables all of you to attend the same service as members of the same congregation? The author calls this enabling factor our ability to affirm persons rather than creeds and in this way to practice a love beyond belief. Do you agree? Explain.
  • What is your view of the author's claim that our theological differences can be explained in part by the different theological lenses we use (Christian, Jewish, Pagan, Humanist, Buddhist, etc.) to explain what our shifts in feelings—our change of heart—mean in religious terms?

Creating an Uplifting Emotional Ethos in Unitarian Universalist Congregations

  • Have you ever participated in a small group ministry program in your congregation? How did the experience affect you? What parts of the program could be improved? Might such an improved small group ministry program help you and your congregation develop and sustain an emotional ethos of care and compassion within your own faith community? Can small group ministry programs become places where love beyond belief is practiced as a spiritual discipline? Explain in detail.
  • Has the small group ministry program in which you have participated include a social service or social justice component as part of the small group practice so as to share its ethos of care and compassion with the larger world? If you have participated in such small group service or social justice projects, reflect carefully on your experience and then evaluate it. What is your general evaluation of such a faith-in-action component of small group ministry as a practical theological project for Unitarian Universalists? What are your thoughts and feelings about small group ministries and their possibilities as a practical theological movement, a faith-in-action way of loving beyond belief?

As time allows, read these other resources, in the order listed below:

  • Leader Resource 2, Healing Community
  • Leader Resource 3, Covenant Groups — What They Are and How They Work
  • Leader Resource 4, Future Designs for American Liberal Theology

For more information contact web@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, February 21, 2013.

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