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[Chalice] Postmodernism, Unitarianism, and the Return of God [Chalice]

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Presented November 4, 2007, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

On the one hand, I feel embarrassed and apologetic to return to the topic of modernism and postmodernism and the difference between them. All this language, this way of conceptualizing the present time is just so academic and you may well feel like it has precious little to do with your life and your concerns. On the other hand, the difference between modernity and postmodernity, this living a modern life but doing also in significant ways beyond modernity actually has a lot to do with Unitarianism and with how it has changed over the generations. I think in fact that Unitarians today are almost inescapably, inevitably postmoderns whether they know or care about that academic language. More than that, I would even say that we not only are postmoderns but that it is a good thing that we are. We Unitarians today are postmoderns and we are glad that we are. As a matter of fact, understanding something about postmodernism and understanding ourselves as postmodern can make us, I think, aware of fortunate we are to be Unitarians now, in the way that we are as Unitarians today.

American Unitarianism has an obvious connection to this conversation about modernity and postmodernity because American Unitarianism historically is a product of and is strongly allied with, perhaps even married to modernity. American Unitarianism can rightly be seen as a classic expression of high modernity. As we talked about last time, modernity saw itself as a time which was finally emerging into an age of reason and science. One of the things moderns were most excited about what that they believed the age was finally dawning when people would be rational about their religion. Modern intellectuals, certainly some of whom thought of themselves as Unitarians, believed that people's religious life would be shaped by reason, not superstition. Instead of having their minds destroyed by blindly believing in a sacred book that miraculously fell from the sky, or sacred beings like priests who were able to speak on behalf of God, now people would use their own reason to discover the marvelous order within the universe and logically conclude from that marvelous order a good and intelligent creator. Now mature people could simply agree about this reasonable religion and get rid of their ridiculous superstitions from these hopelessly outdated and old-fashioned things, historical religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, for example.

This high modern confidence in reason, and in the religion which it considered rational and its disdain for those other religions based on superstition-which is so much part and parcel of an earlier version of American Unitarianism--received its classic expression in the very title of Immanuel Kant's great work on religion published in 1793: Religion Within in the Limits of Reason Alone. It is also perfectly demonstrated in Kant's own personal life in his complete inability to understand why his great friend and fellow great philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, so stubbornly continued to be Jewish and even to practice Judaism.

Unitarianism in America is a product of that same high modern confidence in reason and high regard for rational religion. I am sure there were many 19th century Unitarians who looked at their Christian and Jewish neighbors and also at Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus with that modern and Kantian disdain and were probably saying to themselves: Why can't you come out of the past and get with the program? We live in the modern age now.

The marriage of this high modern confidence in reason and its high esteem for reasonable religion and 19th century Unitarianism is shown in Thomas Jefferson's confident claim in 1822 that in America there is no young person now living who will not die a Unitarian. Jefferson was just expressing that high modern and 19th century belief that these old fashioned things called religions will fade away and with education everyone will be content with a Unitarian, rational, modern religion.

There are certainly times when we contemporary Unitarians can really relate to this desire that other people be rational and reasonable and modern in their form of religion, and this week was certainly one of those times. You might have felt that way yourself when you heard about the crazy Baptist minister from Kansas who this week lost the lawsuit against him brought by the family of a soldier killed in Iraq. This crazy minister and his church show up at funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq holding signs that read Thank God for Dead Soldiers and God Hates You and of course the old favorite You are going to hell. This minister and his congregation believe that God brought upon our country the tragedy of September 11 and the fiasco that is the Iraq War because God is very angry at America for being tolerant of gay people. And on top of that, the very next morning Dana informs me that the public celebration of her new Romanian translation of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses has been called off because the publishing house has received death threats, and the book isn't even out yet.

So yes, there are times when we can really understand an earlier generation of Unitarians and their desire that people be rational in their religious lives . . . but Unitarians today are significantly different from many Unitarians during the time of high modernity. We don't have the same confidence in reason, nor in the one version of religion that we consider rational. And we don't look down our noses at people who are immersed in other religious traditions. We don't look at Christians or Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus with that Kantian/Jeffersonian modern disdain and wonder why they haven't gotten with the program yet and become rational, become Unitarians.

Last week here in the church was a good example with our speaker, Rev. Delap. I don't think we would want Rev. DeLap to stop being a Presbyterian and see the light of rational religion, and I don't think we think of his long life dedicated to his own Christian tradition as a long time not getting the program of a truly rational religion. And I loved the way he started, by saying he was a Trinitarian, not a Unitarian. I found myself wishing he would have explained that more, talked about what it meant to him to be a Trinitarian. Christian theology today in this postmodern era has a renewed awareness that the God of Christianity is not a Being, but is a web of relations, so that, for example, the Father's grief at losing the Son and the Son's experience of abandonment by the Father are aspects of the divine life through which the problem of human alienation from God and from the world is overcome. This return to the notion that the Christian God is a genuinely and thoroughly Trinitarian concept and is then different from the God of Judaism or Islam or the rational God of high modernity would be an example of what David Tracy refers to as the return of God through constant rereading and reappraisal of the various religious traditions. And if Rev. DeLap had chosen to do so, to couch his passionate concern for overcoming alienation within the context of Trinitarian theology, I doubt very much if we would have said to him that he should stop being so old-fashioned and superstitious and get with the program of modern, rational, Unitarian religion. Rather, we would have been open to and enjoyed thinking about what it means to him that he describes himself not only a as a Christian but also, more profoundly I think, as a Trinitarian.

And as Rev. DeLap talked last week about alienation, I realized all I wanted to do is be in my back yard in the sun and read that great Jewish masterpiece about God overcoming alienation and redeeming humanity and creation, The Star of Redemption by Franz Rosenzweig. One thing Rosenzweig is trying to do in this brilliant and impossible book is to demonstrate to both Jewish and Christian intellectuals that Judaism does not need the Christian concepts of incarnation and Trinity because Judaism has a God who is active in the world, overcoming human alienation from God's self and from the creation. The rereading of Rosezweig's profoundly Jewish reflections on God as redeemer would be another example of the return of God through the religious traditions themselves. Jewish families today rediscovering the important of Jewish holidays and services, like Sabbath, Passover, Sukkot, would be another example of what Tracy means by the return of God through these most old-fashioned things, the religious traditions themselves.

If Rosenzweig could be resurrected to explain his book to us, to Unitarians today, we wouldn't look at this great Jewish philosopher with the modern disdain with which Kant looked at Mendelsson. We would want him to explain it to us so we could have a more profound appreciation for Judaism. And we certainly wouldn't want the Jewish families to give up their traditions and get with the program of rational religion, but we would want to learn more about them. I know many of us are lucky to count Diane and Myron Kirsch as friends. We would love it if they came to church here and even signed the book, but we wouldn't want them to stop being Jewish. Indeed, if through our friendship with them we learn something about Judaism, we would consider that a blessing. If Jewish friends explained that they heard God's voice again in the command to build a sukkah in their back yards to remind them of the vulnerability of human existence in this world and of our responsibilities to the poor and to the homeless, we would find that interesting and listen and learn out of respect, and not with disdain.

That is what I mean when I say we Unitarians today are inevitably postmodern in that we are beyond modernity and its confidence in itself, in its too narrow view of reason, of what is rational in life, and in religion. We are as contemporary Unitarians beyond that, still modern but in significant ways beyond modernity. We are postmoderns.

And it is a great thing that we are, a great thing to be postmodern Unitarian. It's a great thing to be beyond modernity's self confidence, even arrogance. As we in our own country have learned once again arrogance since September 11th, arrogance creates enemies, not friends, and speaking theologically, arrogance does not do the divine work of reconciliation and redemption that our friend and Christian minister was speaking of last week.

It is a great thing to be a Unitarian today. It's a great thing to want to learn from our neighbors and friends and from great intellectuals from other traditions out of respect and humility. It's a great thing to have Lao Tse speaking to us as we come in the church or drive by, to have the wisdom of Taoism, the natural way, speaking to us especially now as we move through the change of the season and embrace the chill of the late Autumn and the increased darkness and enjoy the transient beauty of the leaves even as they fall and disappear. It is a great thing to learn more about Judaism or Christianity from our friends and neighbors, a great thing to listen to native American traditions teach us to learn from the Earth; it's great to have Paul and Sam and others teach us more about pagan traditions.

And if some people might want to criticize us or make fun of us and say, oh so you are open to everything and all religions, we might want to say that life hopefully is long, and sometimes native American traditions speak to you and sometimes Taoism and the natural way speak to you and in other periods of your life maybe you would find Buddha's insistence on being your own refuge and calming the flames within you most meaningful. And if someone said in return, what are you some kind of Unitarian? Some kind of postmodern? We could say: You got it.

©2007 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2007. Postmodernism, Unitarianism, and the Return of God, /talks/20071104.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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