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Theology for a Secular Age (I)

General Assembly 2009 Event 2040
UU University Theology Track, Part I

"I'm a little surprised to see so many of you here," said the Rev. Galen Guengrich as he looked out over perhaps three hundred people gathered for the first session of "Theology for a Secular Age," one of the tracks in the Unitarian Universalist University programming at General Assembly (GA).

Guengrich began with a definition of the word "theology." Strictly speaking, theology is speech about God, he said, but more generally, "theology is the process of using language to describe certain kinds of experience."

"Theology steps back from a certain kind of experience, religious experience," he said, "and asks what makes it possible, and why is it transformative, or why is it destructive?"

Guengrich, who has a doctoral degree in theology, is the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. He was raised as a "conservative Mennonite," but later became a Unitarian Universalist.

"Why did I leave?" Guengrich asked. "Because I wanted my freedom." However, he soon discovered that freedom, the absence of coercion, "is politically necessary but not religiously sufficient." Because there are other people in the world, freedom is inevitably constrained. Because of his Mennonite heritage, the tension between individual and community has shaped the way he looks at religious experience.

He then gave the goal for the workshop. "Many people in our era believe that religion is what is wrong with the world," he said. Referring to fundamentalist religions, he added, "Religion is a lot of what's wrong with the world." His goal is the find a "third way between competing fundamentalisms of the left and the right," that is, between doctrinaire atheism on the one hand, and fundamentalist religions on the other hand.

"Most people today, whether they are atheist or fundamentalist or somewhere in between, think about religion in somewhat the same way," he said. Most fundamentalists and most atheists agree about what religion is, while they disagree about whether religion is useful.

To outline a "third way" between atheism and fundamentalism, Guengrich proposed to address seven essential religious questions. In this first session of his workshop, he addressed four of those questions. He stated those four questions as follows: "How do we know what we most truly know? What is the nature of existence and how do we [human beings] fit into the picture? What in the world is divine, if anything? What is the uniquely human challenge?"

Addressing his first question, "How do we know what we most truly know?" Guengrich said there are two possible answers. First, we can know what is true because God said it is true. Second, we can know what is true because there is evidence that it is true. The first answer employs the method of doctrine, while the second answer employs an ongoing process of inquiry and discovery.

Guengrich criticized the method of doctrine as being closed. "Belief in supernatural revelation," he said, "means that each religion has its own set of facts." Instead, he advocated for an approach which grew out of Enlightenment Europe, where our experience of the natural world is the source of truth. He cited the book A Common Faith by John Dewey as a paradigmatic example of applying this second approach to religious experience.

Turning to the question of the nature of existence, Guengrich was critical of the hyper-individualism characteristic of the contemporary United States. "In a culture dominated by the language of self-determination and self-reliance," he said that it is important to remember that no individual exists in isolation from others."If you take away the relational ingredients that make up my life," he said, then nothing much is left. "We are constituted by our relationships."

"We live in a relational universe," he said. All human beings, and indeed everything in the universe, is connected. He pointed to contemporary science to support this claim. String theory, he said, shows that everything in the universe is connected. Thus, to say that human beings live in a relational universe "is not just good theology, this is good science."

Guengrich then turned to the question of what, if anything, in the universe is divine. While many Americans believe in a personal God, Guengrich said he did not. He said that he approaches the idea of God from a different perspective, setting aside the question of a supernatural God.

He asserted that the idea of God is necessary to explain two kinds of human experience. "Where do experiences go when their physical substrate no longer exists?" he said. "We need a word for the collection of all experiences in the universe," and he calls this collection of experiences by the name "God." Secondly, he said that the idea of God is necessary to answer the question, "Where do possibilities come from?" According to Guengrich, God is the transcendent source of future human possibilities.

"For most people who say they don't believe in God, these two things aren't a problem," said Guengrich. "The real problem is the idea of the personal God." He said that his idea of God is one that "children of the Enlightenment" can believe in.

Then Guengrich turned to his fourth question: What is the uniquely human challenge? He said that "sin" is a concept that really means "missing the mark." "It [the concept of sin] comes from archery," he said. Given that, the fundamental human sin is to live as though we are not dependent on other human beings.

"We are utterly dependent on the people in the world around us, and when the only heart we hear beating is our own, what do we do?" said Guengrich. He said there is no God who can "bail us [humanity] out of this situation." The uniquely human challenge is to reach out to others, and this is something that can take place in Unitarian Universalist congregations.

That ended the first session of "Theology in a Secular Age." Guengrich promised that he would answer the remainder of his seven questions in the next session.

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

Part II >

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Last updated on Thursday, April 5, 2012.

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