On What Ground Does Your Faith Stand?

74  bar rises 29.92 1mph N dew-point 62    Summer, sunny and pleasant

Full Thunder Moon

“Think like a man of action and act like a man of thought.” – Henri Bergson

I’ve not seen this quote before, but I like it.  I do know Bergson, however, a creative philosopher.  He proposed the snapshot theory of time.  Time precedes in discrete chunks, rather than a continuous flow.

After sheepshead last night, Bill Schmidt and I talked outside Roy Wolfe’s house.  The air was warm and a bit stale, mosquitoes homed in on my bald head while we  talked about Chardin.  A new translation of Chardin’s phenomenon is out, Bill said, now called the Human Phenomenon.  Much better.  I said I’d look at it.

We share a spirituality, a sense of our location in the universe, that has its roots in Christian experience, yet has long ago slipped the moorings of that more traditional way.  Both of us now search for ways to articulate this sense of wonder and awe founded not in words, but in lived experience.  Bill spoke of a moment when the trees outside his apartment came to him and he to them, “A moment, maybe.  A tenth of a second.  But I was with them, no boundary.”

In my re-reading of Unitarian history in preparation for my UU history presentation it has become clear to me that the primary struggle in liberal religion, from the beginning down to the current day, is over what gives religion authority.  I could have seen it earlier, because I learned while a Presbyterian that all fights in the Christian community come to that, too.  In their case the issue was either biblical interpretation, the most common authority in the Protestant community, or the Catholic church’s claim that their magesterium grew from its apostolic authority in addition to scripture.

At first, in the Unitarian movement, the new come-outers fought with the orthodox Calvinists over reason applied to Scripture.  The Unitarians said there was no warrant for the trinity in scripture, therefore they did not believe it.  But.  They did believe the scriptures had supernatural authority.  Jesus was still the Christ and miracles like the resurrection were the warrant for reasonable Christians in their faith.

When Emerson, in his Harvard Divinity School Address, said that we should look to our own inspiration, our own revelation rather than that of the fathers what he put forward was, in fact, a new source of religious authority, personal experience.

The  outflow from what then became the Transcendentalist Controversy was the subtle, at first, erosion of belief in the supernatural character of the scriptures, and therefore of Jesus, that proceeded pell mell to questions of the existence of God.

Quelled in part by the accident of the Civil War just as it had begun to gather force, the whole controversy emerged again when, in the West, after the Civil War, the new Unitarian and Universalist communities began to veer away from Boston Unitarian orthodoxy and raise what would become the western controversy, that between theists and those who wanted more latitude.  The Free Religious Association, which carried the burden of those who did not want to be bound by any orthodoxy, gave a brief organizational expression to this movement.

The result of all these questions was the gradual opening of more and more space within liberal religion for a range of perspectives from conservative liberal Christian Unitarianism to those who sought the foundation for their faith in human experience.

This was roughly how things stood at the transition in to the 20th century.  At this point Minneapolis emerged, through the preaching of John Dietrich, as the center of a controversy, this time between the humanist message conveyed by Dietrich to audiences in the thousands and the theists of the liberal Christians.  This humanist-theist debate still resonates in 21st century UU congregations.  The content seems to be the issue, but it is not.

As it has been from the beginning with William Ellery Channing in the early part of the 19th century, the issue is now this:  what authenticates your faith experience?  Is it some external authority:  a creed, a bible, a prelate; or, is it a matter of lived experience?

Now we have come full circle back to Bill and me standing there on the street in St Paul, the mosquitoes buzzing and Roy coming out from his house to toss a can in the blue recycling bin.  We waved to Roy, concluded our talk and got in our cars to head home.