Leader Resource 2: Recovering Transcendentalist Universalism: Forrest Church

LEADER RESOURCE 2 Recovering Transcendentalist Universalism: Forrest Church
Leader Resource 2: Recovering Transcendentalist Universalism: Forrest Church

Reproduced from The Making of American Liberal Theology.

Liberal theology as a formal tradition began with Schleiermacher, but as an institutional North American tradition it began with the New England Arminians who, having called themselves liberal Christians, came to accept the name Unitarian. In the 1980s Forrest Church emerged as a leading advocate of the typical twentieth-century Unitarian rationalism, but later judged that liberalism without God makes a poor religion. The son of U.S. Senator Frank Church, he was educated at Stanford University and Harvard Divinity School, earned a doctorate in early Christian history at Harvard University in 1978, and immediately landed a high-profile perch as senior minister of All Souls Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Manhattan. By 2005, Church had served at All Souls for twenty-seven years, written or edited twenty books, and became his denomination's leading advocate of recovering its early spiritual sensibility in new forms.

In his early career he stressed what he did not believe, writing books with slightly cheeky titles (The Devil and Dr. Church and The Seven Deadly Virtues) that took pride in his minimal theology. Thomas Jefferson was his model of a good Unitarian rationalist. At the age of ten, Church had been given a Jefferson Bible by his agnostic father, who received it as an election gift; he later recalled that his belief in Jesus the Son of God died upon reading Jefferson's expurgated version of the Gospels. Jefferson separated the teachings of Jesus from those about Jesus, an approach that still made sense to Dr. Church. As a youthful pastor of a prestigious congregation he wore his "rational aridity" proudly, believing only what he comprehended. He could believe in a Jeffersonian version of the ethics of Jesus, but not the Emersonian Oversoul (1).

For several years he preached like a taxidermist instead of a worshipper, as he later put it, taking the same approach to personal demons: "I muzzled as many as I could, all the while doing everything possible to keep those that eluded me from hiding under my bed and haunting my sleep." Consumed by literary ambitions and a desire for public recognition, and a bit unnerved by his quick ministerial success, Church drifted into alcoholism and a messy, very public end to his first marriage, all the while using alcohol as a lubricant to creativity: "If Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald could write drunk, who was I to question such a muse? It even appeared to work for me." He medicated his first stabs of spiritual emptiness with heavier drinking, all the while writing trade books with a ministerial bent, even editing a twelve-step book. Eventually the emptiness of his life became "unendurable," though not until he was well into a second marriage. Church's marriage to Carolyn Buck Luce and his awakening to a "God-shaped hole" in his life allowed him to crawl out of alcoholic darkness. Gradually he converted to the view that not much of a religion came from the taxidermist approach to it. "Nothing is emptier than a life in which God is palpably absent," he later wrote. "How lost I was, and how profoundly I needed God's help to find peace." (2)

He was not at home in the universe, nor in himself. Church began to look for a home in the universe before he faced his personal demons, taking a transcendental turn. Since he still shared the rational Unitarian distaste for God-language, his range of options was limited: "God is on the label of every bottle of religious snake oil I have ever tasted." To become more religious, he had to reimagine God, or at least clear a place for mystery "on the altar of my hearth, which before I had crowded with icons to knowledge." Something besides Unitarian humanism had to support his sermonizing that life is worthwhile and good. Instead of the eighteenth-century classical lithographs of architectural drawings that he had favored as a graduate student, he needed "something more arresting and humbling, something like Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night." He found it in the twin strands of his own tradition, Unitarianism and Universalism. (3)

In 1989 Church coauthored a primer, A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (with John A. Buehrens), that signaled his transition to a more personal, Emersonian universalism. Most of his beliefs had not changed, but now he emphasized the spirit of his believing, not the letter, declaring that religion is a human response "to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." The inevitability of death gives meaning to human loving, he wrote, for the more love that human beings find and give, the more they risk losing: "I have no idea what will happen to me when I die, but I know that I will die. And I know that the choices I make in this life affect the way I live. It is in this crucible, mysterious and uncertain, that my religion must be forged." (4)

That was traditional Unitarian Universalist music, but later in the book Church used the word "God" more often than many UUs liked, describing God as a name for "that which is greater than all and yet present in each." He also offered a universalist creed: (1) there is one Reality of Truth (God); (2) this Reality shines through every "window" in the "cathedral" of the world and out from every perceiving subject; (3) it is never perceived directly; (4) yet it is reflected and refracted in a myriad of meaningful patterns on the floor of the cathedral and by every perceiver; (5) thus, every window illuminates Truth in a different way, leading to different truths. The same light shines through all windows. Church explained, but every window is different, refracting the light in different patterns that suggest different meanings. He favored "liberal religion" over "religious liberalism" because the latter reduced religion to mere adjective, like too much of Unitarian Universalism. A decade later he sought to head off the problem of relativism by adding to the fifth point that the various truths deriving form Truth differ in measure "according to the insight, receptivity, and behavior of the beholder." Truth is personalized in ways by which it can be judged; individual and collective acts that harm our collective well-being are sinful; acts that serve our collective well-being are saving. (5)

He loved his adopted UU tradition, but worried that it would shrivel and die if it did not make something like his own spiritual and intellectual course correction. Church's subsequent writings featured the five principles of his credo, sometimes explaining that the idea of the one light is Unitarian, while that of many windows is Universalist. Addressing the Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly in 2001, he accented the positive: "We Unitarian Universalists have inherited a magnificent theological legacy. In a sweeping answer to creeds that divide the human family, Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism that we share a common destiny." But he also warned that the UU tradition had little hope of flourishing if it did not become more "evangelical" in its theory and practice. Historically, Unitarianism was about the reality of a single God, and Universalism was about the promise of a shared salvation. But Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists had a pronounced tendency to divide over disagreements. They stressed their negations, assumed that only one person can be right in an argument, and mustered passion only for division. Church exhorted: "To make good on our theological inheritance, we must find a way to come together and proclaim a Universalism fit for the challenges of the 21st century." (6)

He reminded rationalist colleagues that he, too, had preached a gospel that clipped God's wings. Like a blindered lepidopterist he had netted, chloroformed, and mounted butterflies for observation, concluding, after long examination, that "butterflies don't fly." But mere Enlightenment empiricism had not worked for him, and it wasn't working for Unitarian Universalism. "To give my universalism full play, I had to make room in my theology for a more capricious, if unfathomable, power." He did not believe that UUs had to return to "the old universalist God," the name "God," or even to Emersonian mysticism, because Church did not believe in single answers. His credo honored many religious approached, excluding only the truth claims of absolutists. Moreover, he argued elsewhere that Emerson's sovereign individualism and "aversion to human intimacy" were non-starters for a progressive faith. But the UU tradition certainly needed an "affectionate relationship with the ground of our being." Otherwise, it was destined to "succumb to the temptation to divide it between our own and others' feet." (7)

He liked the metaphor of the holograph, describing three-dimensional holograms—laser recordings of images on a photo plate comprising thousands of tiny lenses—as analogies of divine reflexivity and transcendence. A single shard of a shattered photo plate contains the plate's entire image, just as each human cell contains the full genetic coding for a person's entire being: "The holograph suggests God's reflexive nature in a way that transforms our relationship not only with the divine, but with one another as well. Spun out of star-stuff, illuminated by God, we participate in the miracle we ponder." Noting his kinship to process theology, Church stressed that the best evidence for divine reality is within ordinary things and everyday experience: "The surest way to find the sacred is to decode our own experiences, not only of beauty ('heaven in a wildflower') but also in the sacraments of pain by which we commune with one another." (8)

Religious truth is very much like the truth of poetry, he argues. The text of both fields is creation, which theologians and poets strive to comprehend with limited tools and vision. If a poem can be validly interpreted in many ways, how can the same thing not be true of religious reality? Moreover, the human interpreters of God's poetry are always part of the poem itself. Church issued a warning: "If we Unitarian Universalists are unable to recognize the ground that we share, we shall remain only marginally effective in helping to articulate grounds on which all might stand as children of a mystery that unites far more profoundly than it distinguishes one child of life from another. To the extent that we fail in this mission, we betray our Universalist inheritance." (9)

Modern theology was a story of doubt and negation, and Unitarianism was an extreme example; Church compared modern theology to peeling the layers of an onion in search of its seed: "Eventually, nothing is left but our tears." When rationalism negates or displaces mystery, "our imagination and sense of wonder are just as likely to die as are the gods we pride ourselves for having killed." (10)

Equally committed to personal and public religion, Church wrote prolifically on both topics, fashioning sermons into book chapters. He was fond of saying that God is "the most famous liberal of all time." Like liberalism, God is generous, bounteous, and misunderstood, he explained. Every word that describes God is a synonym for liberal: "God is munificent and open-handed. The creation is exuberant, lavish, even prodigal. As the ground of our being, God is ample and plenteous. As healer and comforter, God is charitable and benevolent. As our redeemer, God is generous and forgiving." Above all, Church analogized, "God has a bleeding heart that simply never stops." Though "liberal" is not a big enough word to describe God, he allowed—God is far too liberal for that—the word "illiberal" never fits God: "God is not miserly, parsimonious, penurious, or stingy. God is not narrow or rigid." (11)

Church did not want his tradition to go all the way back to William Ellery Channing, who described himself as a Unitarian Christian, not as a Christian Unitarian. Only a small minority of Unitarian Universalists considered "Christian" an important modifier of their religious identity. Church spoke for that option. He was a Christian universalist, not a universalist Christian. Believing in the Light that shines through all windows, he allowed Christianity to refract and shape its meanings, modifying his universalism. There is such a thing as Buddhist or humanist universalism, he reasoned, but one cannot be a Universalist universalist, for it is impossible to perceive through every window. Universalist Christianity is another impossibility, because in that case the thing that modifies one's faith becomes its nominative: "Primary allegiance is relegated to one part of the whole that encompasses it." Church's ambition for Unitarian Universalism was to recover, with a multiperspectival and outward-reaching consciousness, the best parts of Emersonian transcendentalism. The best way to do that was to "band together, cultivate interdependence, build strong institutions, support them generously, and become more fully accepting and embracing of one another." If twenty-first-century Unitarian Universalists could do it, their traditions would finally emerge from Emerson's shadow into his light. (12)


(1) Forrest Church, Bringing God Home: A Traveller's Guide (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002), 190-91, "rational aridity," 236; Church, The Devil and Dr. Church: A Guide to Hell for Atheists and True Believers (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986); Church, The Seven Deadly Virtues: A Guide to Purgatory for Atheists and True Believers (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1988).

(2) Church, Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide, quotes, 213, 148, 149, 150, 151.

(3) Forrest Church, "Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century," UU World 15 (November/December 2001): 18-25, "God is," and "on the altar," 22; Church, Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide, "something more," 214.

(4) John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church, A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), quotes 8.

(5) Ibid., quotes, 84, 86-87, 160; Church, Bringing God Home; A Traveler's Guide, "according to," 222.

(6) Church, "Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century," quotes 18, 19.

(7) Ibid., quotes 22; Forrest Church, "Emerson's Shadow," UU World 17 (March/April 2003): 29-31, "aversion," 30.

(8) Church, "Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century," quotes 23.

(9) Ibid., quote, 25.

(10) Church, Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide, 214, 216.

(11) Forrest Church, God and Other Famous Liberals: Recapturing Bible, Flag, and Family from the Far Right (New York: Walker and Co., 1996), quotes, 3, 4.

(12) Church, Bringing God Home: A Traveler's Guide, "primary," 217; Church, "Emerson's Shadow," "band together," 31.

About the Author

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