I took some recent issues of The Christian Century and Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness with me on the flight to General Assembly in Salt Lake City. I’ve been getting behind on my magazines and we’re going to use Palmer’s book next year as we introduce a program called Wellspring in the congregation.
I had a transformative reading experience, getting Parker Palmer and Emergent Church and UU theology all rumbling around. Unitarian Universalism has been described, sometimes derisively, sometimes as a point of pride, as having no theological center. Some believe that for our congregations to thrive in our non creedal association that individual congregations must identify for themselves a theological center, becoming either a humanist congregation or a UU Christian congregation or a theist congregation, or an earth centered congregation, rooting the worship and overall theological stance of the community in one aspect of our tradition.
Yet, in the broader the religious world in American society, especially in the Protestant Christian tradition in which our association’s history and polity is rooted, the move is toward non-denominationalism. That movement perhaps leaves us in good place to leave open our theological center. We were non-centered (theologically) before non-centered was cool.
In the June 2 Christian Century Peter Rollins, an Emergent Church organizer in the UK (IKON) speaks about the importance of leaving the theological center open. Speaking to the critics of his emergent gathering Ikon who claim he puts “doubt at the center,” Rollins says,
“No that’s what modernism does. At Ikon we put the experience of transformation at the center. At an Ikon gathering , everyone in the room can say, ‘something happened to me. There is some reason I am sitting here in this dingy pub talking about religion and politics and not at home in front of the telly.”
UU congregations have to become places of transformation. When we put transformation at the center, we become vital and alive spiritual communities. When transformation is not at the center, there is no vitality and there is no real community. What we are learning, and I believe the Emergent movement is teaching us this, is that you don’t need a historic building, you don’t need a creed, you don’t need dogma, you don’t tradition (although paradoxically traditions are welcome in many emergent settings), but you do need transformation. Something has to reach people at their core, at the level of their soul, even if they disagree on the point of having a soul, or the entire enterprise of doing “church” is a pointless exercise.
Rollins uses the image of a donut with the hole in the middle to describe Ikon, saying a priest is one who refuses to be a priest, instead creating a priesthood (and we add a prophethood) of all believers. He sees his role in Ikon as being a person who makes sure no one colonizes the space, that it remains open for exploration. He uses the analogy of two people sharing a pint in a pub, one saying, “I’m going to convert you to Christianity” and the other saying “I’m going to get you out of Christianity.” I wonder who colonizes our space in our congregations? In our association? When, where, and how is turf sectioned off and dogma created? Even when there is no official dogma?
Rollins’ donut hole recalls for me Parker Palmer’s circles of trust – spaces where no advice is given, no fixing of each other attempted, but instead everyone speaks their truth to the empty center of the circle, and is transformed by the opportunity, the space to hear their own soul speak back to them.
We have a great message to share from our Unitarian Universalist tradition, but maybe the first thing we need to do is create places where transformation is allowed to happen.