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The John Murray Distinguished Lecture

General Assembly 2007 Event 2062
Speaker: The Reverend Dr. Paul Rasor

Universalism and the Sectarian Element in Liberal Religion

In the 21st annual John Murray Distinguished Lecture, Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor reminded his audience that Universalism has a sectarian element in its history, and proposed ways in which recognizing and reclaiming that history could have a positive effect on Unitarian Universalism today.

"Liberal religion is in most respects the very opposite of sectarian religion," Rasor observed. And yet early Universalism did show many of the characteristics of a sect. "Exploring the implications of these apparent contradictions can help explain some of the issues and tensions we continue to deal with. Understanding our lingering sectarian impulses can help us understand something important about Unitarian Universalism today."

Introduced by Rev. Nate Walker of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia as "a polymath," Rasor holds degrees in both law and music in addition to a doctorate in theology. He has performed as both a classical and jazz trombonist, and as the lead (and only) actor in the one-man drama Clarence Darrow by David W. Rintels. He is an ordained minister and is currently director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College. His most recent book, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century, was published by Skinner Press in 2005.
Recognizing that sect often carries a negative implication similar to cult, Rasor took a more neutral definition from Webster's Dictionary: "a dissenting or schismatic religious body, esp. one regarded as extreme or heretical." He explained that sects separate themselves from some previous church, dissenting from some aspects of that church while maintaining continuity in other aspects. "Despite this continuity, however, sects tend to see themselves as separate or set apart, not only from the dominant religious group, but also from the world. Sects are always an implied threat to the powers-that-be, because in principle, at least, they renounce the values of the social and political establishment They are therefore more likely than established or mainline churches to challenge the authority of the state." Rasor added that sects tend to be small and to emphasize the personal rather than the abstract: piety over theology, and direct experience of the divine rather than a relationship mediated by the clergy.

Early Universalism fits this description well, according to Rasor. Splitting off from Calvinism, Universalism dissented from Calvinist doctrine of election and instead put forward its belief in universal salvation. "Yet in other ways, the early Universalists accepted the basic Calvinist theological architecture," he said, "including its determinism and its view of salvation as a social or communal reality rather than an individual achievement." They practiced "a highly spirit-driven, evangelical form of religion" and "retained the religious enthusiasm of the evangelical Calvinists, but they unhooked it from many of its doctrinal qualifications."

In many ways the early Universalists differed from the liberal Congregationalists who would eventually become Unitarians. "Their heart-oriented piety was a protest against the liberals' head-oriented rationalism. The Universalists did not reject reason, but they sought to use it to nourish piety through rational conviction."
Rasor identified several ways in which Unitarian Universalism's latent sectarian impulses could be resources for the movement today.

Critical distance. A sectarian sense of separation from the culture, Rasor believes, could give UUism more of the distance it needs to sharpen its prophetic critique of contemporary society. "Liberal religion's central defining characteristic has been its intentional adaptation to modern culture." This ability to speak the culture's language "would seem to make liberal religion ideally situated to become a strong prophetic voice in the world. Prophetic critique must be grounded in religious values that are independent of the culture yet largely shared by the culture."

"In practice, however, liberalism's cultural orientation has tended to undermine rather than strengthen its prophetic voice." Instead, liberalism's "comfortable familiarity" with the dominant culture has "siphoned off prophetic energy," resulting in a preference for "gradual reform over radical social change."

Rasor explained that liberal religion also "tends to blur the distinction between religion and culture. When this happens, religious identity is thinned out. Liberal religion becomes indistinguishable from liberal politics, liberal spirituality dissolves into pop psychology, and liberalism's prophetic edge is blunted."

Continuity with Christianity. Sects blend dissent with continuity in a way that keeps their history alive. Rasor said "I see a disturbing tendency among Unitarian Universalists today to treat our religious movement as though it had no past." This ahistorical attitude produces "a very superficial self-understanding. We may be post-Christian, but it matters very much that it is Christianity we are post."

Recovering our particularity. Rasor noted that great literature always combines the universal and the particular. We are able to identify with characters and the universal themes they embody precisely because their authors provide us with many well-chosen details even if those details describe characteristics that we do not share. "We connect at a deep level, even though we know it is not our situation being described." He contrasted this with UUism's attempts to be inclusive by seeking unifying generalizations that minimize particulars. By leaving out the things that make us unique, "we may avoid offending anyone, but we also avoid truly knowing anyone."

Rasor called for "a deeper Universalism" that accepts differences rather than trying to erase them. "We claim to be comfortable with difference and particularity, but we are not. We still too often complain when someone speaks in their own language, if it is not our language. We want speakers to translate everything into some sort of lowest common denominator language, a way of speaking that makes the listener comfortable but often distorts the speaker's meaning and discourages particularity and depth."

He contrasted this with a vision in which each person speaks in his or her own language, and the burden of translation shifts to the listener. Rasor spoke highly of classroom discussions organized according to this principle. "We wanted people to say what they meant and speak out of their own deep identity."

Reclaiming the voice of religion. During the question period, Rasor noted how often UUs speak out in the political area and yet "back away from speaking as religious people." He attributed this partly to an attempt to distance ourselves from the religious right, but also to a lack of definition in our religious identity and our habit of speaking in a lowest-common-denominator language. "Here again, we translate." What we gain in the clarity of our intellectual message, we lose in transmitting the authenticity of our hearts. "At its best," Rasor said, "the sectarian impulse leads to particularity, to clarity, to a strong sense of identity. Properly understood and carefully applied, I believe this impulse might also help us rediscover the passion, the energy, and the religious joy that must have permeated those early Universalist communities."

Reported by Doug Muder; edited by Pat Emery.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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