Saturday, April 16, 2005

Unitarian Universalist Pneumatology

Just musing here, and noting a direction for future reading and reflection.

In today's class (Foundations of Christian Spirituality) we discussed charistmatic and pentecostalist spirituality, and there were guest speakers in class, two African pentcostostalists. The liberal Christian in me balked at some of the assertions, but I was intruiged by a major premise: that the Christian believer is marked by a relationship with the Holy Spirit; that the Holy Spirit is neither "the Force", some impersonal abstrace energy, or some esoteric power of 2000 years ago, but is the living presence of God. To have this relationship, one would be on fire and empowered. And the worship that accompanied this proclamation was very charismatic: the Holy Spirit was invited into the room, healing was prayed for--it was dramatic, and emotional, and not the philosophical, emotionless-to-the-point-of-dour worship that would befit the descendents of the Puritans. (Look, I've been to larger gatherings, and sometimes there is life and energy, but sometime's its on the level of a Donny & Marie concert.) If you don't know what I'm talking about, perform a sociological experiment: go to a charismatic worship service, and for a short time turn off your theological filters. Just observe the emotional investment in the two types of worship. You'll understand the difference. Do we need to turn off our heart to engage our mind?

But that is a major digression.

The real point is that I began to think about UU pneumatology. Is there one? I might suggest that there isn't a clearly defined theology of the holy spirit, but the Holy Spirit might really be the only survivor of the Trinity in Unitarian theology. This is really a draft of an idea and not a full-fledged paper, but I can't quite get away from this thought. Are UUs really closet pneumatologists?

Many UUs do not resonate with God the Father. Some decry patriarchal language; for some, the image merely conjures the bearded old man ready to smite anyone who angers him. ("Don't eat from that tree!"). Even many theist UUs won't dwell on "God the Father" but will talk about the Creator, the Holy One, and might alternate between male/female language.

A great number of UUs certainly do not resonate with the Son. Some will accept the prophetic teachings of Jesus, and some will actively embrace them. (The well-worn, "religion of Jesus, not about him" comes to mind here.) Some will toss the entire person out because of wounding by institutional Christianity. Many will come to their own unique theology of who the figure of Jesus is. There is a constant re-evaluation of the figure of Jesus for religious liberals. (And we're still talking about Jesus here, not even the Logos.)

What about the Holy Spirit? UUs don't really talk much about the Holy Spirit, but Spirit-language is often the safest theological language to use:
Spirit of life, come unto me. Sing in my heart
all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the
wind, rise in the sea; move in the hand, giving
life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close; wings set me
free. Spirit of life, come unto me, come unto me.
(Spirit of Life, hymn 123 in Singing the Living Tradition)
Is there such a thing as a UU pneumatology? There isn't much literature on it that I'm aware of. There is the following from Kate Erslev's UU Identity (2003), a small group ministry resource for young adults:
UU Pneumatology: Going Outside to Feel the Wind and the Sun
For UU’s, we might describe “spirit” as the immediate presence of the Spirit of Life that is in each of us and in all things. The 19th century Unitarians spoke of God as ever- present. Emerson described the “over-soul” as a sense of God as all permeating as opposed to a sovereign king, punishing father, white, abled and old. Our pneumatology is described in the first source as “That which is directly experienced, transcendent, mysterious and wonderful, in all of us.” Do we cheat our pneumatology if we are afraid to use the word “God?”
James Luther Adams has also written somewhat of pneumatology and the Age of the Spirit for religious liberals.
We should recall the elements of the conception of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. The word pneuma denotes the rushing wind of God, manifest at Pentecost, which in immediacy gathers the ecstatic band of believers into the unity of the eschatological community of the Spirit.... As a winnowing wind, the Spirit sets aside traditional and legal authority in favor of the pneumatic authority of the apostles, prophets, and teachers. (Adams, 1991. An Examined Faith. Boston: Beacon, p. 340).
The Spirit was a key motif of the Radical Reformers, Adams continues, who
cherished the free winds of the Spirit and the inward koinonia pneumatos. All of these things are implicit in the experience of "the inner light" and in the great value placed upon voluntary individual decision.; and they provided the soil from which the associational...type of church evolved, a church that is a voluntary assocation based on personal decision... (p. 342)
Adams sees the "Age of the Spirit" as one of the first moments of liberal Christianity, with its concept of the autonomy of believers and the individual experience of the divine.

What does that leave us then? Is there a UU pnemuatology? Is it an untapped resource, or is it a vestigial theological organ? (Or am I just wrong on all accounts?) At the moment I'm inclined to wonder whether Unitarian Universalism has an implicit crypto-pneumatology that serves to unite those who consider themselves theists. (Also, what would happen to this rational faith if it tapped into some of the devotional fire of the charismatics?)

This needs some thought. I'll come back to this next year when I'm studying systematic theology...

CLARIFICATION: I have been to some emotional and spirit-filled UU worship, so I'm not trying to speak about all UU worship. I'm just talking trends and comparing norms (which are sometimes statistical fictions), and there is a real, vital energy to charismatic worship.





10 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff Wilson said...

Intriguing subject and an interesting initial analysis. When you first said the holy spirit might be the only person of the Trinity still hanging around in UU theology, I doubted it. But "Spirit of Life" is pretty ubiquitous, perhaps you're on to something.

You assert that this might be a concept which can unite UU theists or various stripes. I'll go your speculation one further, though it's still just a tentative hypothesis on my part too. I wonder if this might be something that can unite not only various types of theistic UUs but also many non-theistic UUs as well. It seems to me that many Humanists could appreciate this concept as long as they can define it for themselves (i.e. be UU about it). Buddhists might support a form of it too. And the many UUs who aren't really fit into any catagory but who aren't particularly theistic or non-theistic might find it to be a comforting concept. Precisely because this languge of Spirit of Life is so common in UUism, and because--unlike explicit God-talk--it rarely if ever raises any direct objections, it seems to suggest itself as a commonly shared UU theological tenet, or at least a potential one.

9:04 am  
Blogger Peregrinato said...

Jeff--I see where you're going with it. My brain began to head in that direction but I didn't want to get that far yet. Thank you for articulating this.

I guess I'm still muddling through my original hypothesis. I don't have a very solid grasp of either liberal theology or pneumatology, and I'm trying to avoid a simplistic "see, they both use the word spirit" (a least-common-denominator approach). I need to do some serious thinking on this, and I think what you've said adds to this potential for a pneumatology that is enriching and is not divisive (like UU Christology can be.) Thanks again...

2:10 pm  
Anonymous Philocrites said...

Great post! James Luther Adams wrote about the Spirit frequently enough that the editor of his first major collection introduced him as a "pneumatological" theologian (see the Introduction to "On Being Human Religiously"). For Adams the notion of the Holy Spirit wasn't just an experiential concept that allowed diverse theological perspectives to recognize each other as kindred; it also allowed religious and "secular" commitments to recognize a common source, too. So for Adams, the Holy Spirit could be seen in justice movements, protest movements, and other forms of social commitment outside the church. There's a lot of potential there.

I became fascinated by the topic my first year in seminary, and I attempted to outline a doctrine of the liberal church using some of Adams's thinking about the Holy Spirit. See "Authority in the Spirit: Developing a Doctrine of the Liberal Church." But you may already have stumbled onto everything I came up with in that project.

4:27 pm  
Blogger Peregrinato said...

Actually, given the fact that this only hit me recently, there is a lot I have to research, read, and reflect on (the three Rs of theological education?) I look forward to reading your work on this as well.

Thank you for responding. High praise indeed!

5:20 pm  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks for the Deep Thoughts, James (and I know I owe you a phone call).
We sang "Spirit of Life" at our Union Sunday service today and I was struck once again by the way the hymn shifts my attention from a place of covenanted community to Individual Spirituality.

I hear it as:
"Spirit of Life, come unto ME.
Sing in MY heart, all the stirrings, etc..."
...
and ...
"Roots hold ME close,
wings set ME free,
S.O.L., come to ME.
Come to ME."

The experience of Pentecost was a communal experience of the Holy Spirit. The Body of Christ is an inherently communal proclamation. It doesn't surprise me that UUs would be unconsciously drawn to the Holy Spirit enough to go ga-ga over a hymn like "Spirit of Life" (which I find so tuneless in its denoument, unless you get a really snazzy organist playing it) but to balk at the idea of the Holy Spirit of specifically Christian tradition, which obliterates all the perceived differences between us and renders us one with God and with each other.

When I am in an ecumenical setting fully aware that neither my christology nor my concept of the "Father" are acceptable in the sight of the conservatives, I think to myself that it wasn't for the good old Holy Ghost, I probably wouldn't even be let in the room.

And I love to use Holy Spirit as a bridging concept between the Jewish and Christian religions, using Wisdom Literature.

5:33 pm  
Anonymous chutney said...

A unitarianism of the Third Person. I like it.

I grew up in charismatic circles, and I don't reject those experiences insofar as they were life-giving. (I do reject most of their language about them, however.)

Moltmann wrote a book called "Spirit of Life." I have a copy but I've never got around to it. Might be a good place to start.

9:41 am  
Blogger fausto said...

I've been saying the same thing for years. The "God" of UUism, to whatever extent there may be one and UUs may acknowledge it, is not the Judge and Warrior-deity of the Old Testament, nor the Incarnate Christ of John and the Pauline letters, but the immanent Holy Spirit, the Divine Wind that moved over the waters in Genesis 1 and that remains present and breathing inspiration into the world today.

10:14 am  
Anonymous Kim said...

fausto -- I loved the way you said that. I sortof agree with it, except that there really isn't a single way UUs look at anything. I have generally thought of the Holy Ghost (as it was called in my childhood) as the Mom in the nuclear family of the trinitarian god. God's a widower in most Christian movements. (a wife-murderer?)
but I like the concept that UUs focus on the spirit aspect -- it does seem right.
Personally, my god is more a god of my Experience than of my thinking mind.
BTW, we sing Spirit of Life every week at the end of our service.

4:31 am  
Blogger Peregrinato said...

Unfortunately, that's the problem when discussing UUs; it is hard to discern a belief or practice out of the myriad forms one encounters in Unitarian Universalism. Certainly it is possible as a social scientist to construct some norms, and to distill some shared experiences out of the host of many, but a statistical norm obviously implies outliers and variance, and a statistical norm definitely does not comport to a theology. So at best, any practice discussed as Unitarian Universalist almost implicitly will exclude some, but not intentionally. Thanks for your comment, Kim!

8:44 am  
Blogger Suzanne said...

I was actually trying to come up with some retreat ideas around this last year. It struck me that it could be argued that the entire original purpose of Christianity was to lead people to "enthusiasm," defined theologically as "the subjective claim of direct guidance by the Spirit independent of Scripture or church structure". Coming from both a Charismatic and Wiccan background before my life as a UU, this concept appeals to me. I did some research then, and you may appreciate some of the links I found:

- Try this link for a pretty comprehensive look at the history of the Holy Spirit in the Judeo-Christian tradition
- This is a fun progressive Christian view of the Spirit.
- Holy Spirit as female is discussed several places, including here and here.

This doesn't quite address Spirit in UU theology, but I wanted to pass on the resources first; I think I may do a blogpost about the other later.

10:26 am  

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