Evangelicals: The New Universalists

Well, not all of them of course. And certainly not your more fundamentalist types, but people like Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor, authors of A Heretics’s Guide to Eternity which I picked up after it was mentioned on the website and newsletter at Micah’s Porch, you betcha.

How could I not love this book, being a UU, one who revels in heresy, being that my base theology is deemed heretical by orthodox and mainline Christianity by definition. A definition of which I am proud and they, of course, are not – I refuse to give up the right to choose what I will believe and practice as the spiritual life.

The love of God is an opt-out proposition, not an opt-in for those who meet the membership rules. Well, no kidding you say, but this is coming from not from your standard liberal theologian from Evangelicals. There is a major shift going on in a theological community generally assumed to be the polar opposite of Unitarian Universalism. How it impacts us is something we should pay attention to because the religious communities it creates may, or may have already become our competition.

Burke and Taylor quote Nick Cave:

Everybody got a room
In God’s Hotel.
Everybody got a room.
Well you’ll never see a sign hanging on the door
Sayin ‘No vacancies anymore’

Later on they sound, well Ballou-ish, and then get to this:

…many people’s theology is almost obsessed with our afterlife destination. Christianity is all about getting saved from sin and saved from hell, the punishment for sin. But this is a distortion, or at least a reduction of the Bible’s notion of salvation. The idea of salvation in the Bible encompasses many ideas, including things like bondage and liberation, separation and reconciliation. At it’s most basic, salvation means healing (author’s emphasis in the original – pg 180).”

Again, this hardly sound revolutionary. Were this coming from a Unitarian Universalist, you might even say, yeah, what’s the big deal?” But this is coming from people fed up with the standard quo within Evangelical Christianity and what they want instead sounds very familiar doesn’t it, UU’s?

Aren’t these people sounding very ripe for invitation to UU congregations? Keeping in mind of course, that their religious imagination and spirituality is still Christian. But also keeping in mind that they are troubled also by the institution of churches in general. And that’s where the rubber hits the road because we can’t claim our congregations are, across the board, bursting at the seems. On that point we actually share the problems of the “orthodox” Christian communities Burke and Taylor write about.

“For years,” they write we have assumed organized religion is the only ways humanity can have a relationship with the divine other..but today, many people are beginning to realize that faith can exist outside the realm of organized religion. The only problem is that religious people don’t understand this option – nor do they want to. They feel threatened by the shift to spirituality, and they’re quick to point it’s dangers rather than see its potential. Still, in spite of their best efforts, interest in spirituality is flourishing (53).”

One is tempted to say, once again, well if people are looking for spirituality instead of religion, come on over to a UU church. But is that really the case? How many of our congregations are still wedded to organ music? To hierarchical governance structures, if not hierarchy? How many are places where things labeled new age are dismissed out of hand?

Burke and Taylor make an interesting analogy that bears examining for those interested in issues of congregational growth and vitality. They say that the church (any church, not just Evangelical, it could be mainline, Catholic, etc) is like a post office in an email world. Think about it. Before email and the Internet:

There was a time when the post office was absolute essential. It was a center of society. If you wanted to send a message to someone or pay a bill, you needed a middleman – a letter carrier, to do so. In the same way, the institutional church, has long been the middleman between God and society…The world is a different place today..I am in no way saying the post office is obsolete. We still depend on it for many things, but increasingly its role in our lives is being eclipsed by other means of information delivery…

The challenge for people of faith who seek to move forward is to acknowledge these shifts in culture and recongize that the institutional church must now find its own way. The things people used to come to the one-hour event on Sunday morning for are not the drawing cards they once were. Today it seems we respond directly to the mystery of the message that religion was created to decipher.

The institutional church can dismiss this as a byproduct of a consumer culture and insist that we need to get back to basic. That could miss the point that the basics for a whole new generation have changed (133-135).

Indeed and it could go a long way towards explaining why, even though our Unitarian Universalist theology and world view seems to meet the questing needs of so many spiritual seekers that our congregations still aren’t growing.

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