Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thick and Thin Theology

November 1979

Thick and Thin Theology

The Unitarian Universalist denomination has “such a thin theology and such a thick ethic.” These are the words of William Sloane Coffin, noted minister of Riverside Church, N.Y.C., and for many years a courageous social activist. He did not make this statement with any intent to disparage Unitarian Universalists; rather, he was complimenting the long record of Unitarian Universalists in taking stands in the social order and attempting to meet human needs with no intention that such acts would create converts to Unitarian Universalist beliefs.

Now I shall not dwell today on our ethical virtues and activities. If we deserve applause, we do not have to seek it; when we pride ourselves overmuch, that is a sure signal that we are substituting self-satisfaction for awareness of the continuous urgency to grapple with old and new demands to meet human needs. Our task is not to seek praise but to strengthen our witness to injustice and make ever more effective methods of helping.

But is our theology “thin”?

First of all, many religious liberals are frequently trapped in the conceit that theology is nothing but an antiquarian eccentricity occupying musty minds living in the past. Some of us, particularly in the last half of the 20th century, have no room in our intellectual house for theology. One book reviewer commented on a History of Iceland (1758), [noting] that Chapter 12 was entitled “Owls in Iceland.” The chapter consisted in total, of this: “There are no owls of any kind in the whole island.” (American Scholar, Summer 1979, editor’s footnotes). Some persons would similarly describe theology among Unitarian Universalists as having no theologies. There are outdated irrelevancies in theology in my opinion, but there can be deep meanings and broad understandings, too.

Therefore I would like to speak to you about theology from my point of view. It is a principle among us that no one imposes a theology on any one of us. We have the freedom to believe, disbelieve, or ignore. The attempt will be to neither overlook the deficiencies nor the rewards of theology, trying to be candid about its limitations, urgent about its rewards.

Theology is traditionally defined as exposition about the nature of God, the creator, and the nature and destiny of human persons, the created. In Christian thought, theology came to mean the systematic statements which explained and defended the ancient creeds of Christendom. The intent of systematic theology was both to help believers understand their faith and to combat the counter-claims of those labeled, “heretics.”

Now one would suppose the opposite of a thin theology is a “thick” theology. If that means that theology is the sole possession of one or more particularly Christian movements, then, if not “thick,” it seems opaque to me. [marginal note: Harnack: “What is Christianity? Whatever finds expression in doctrines, regulations, ordinances, and forms of public worship comes to be treated as the thing itself.” ] When I think of theology I include the sweep of religions world-wide and to the depths of history, with emphasis on religious thought and its expression in words. Words expressing one’s honest thinking are effective and are still one of the better ways of religious expression.

In our western culture we are surrounded by the ancient faith symbols in art, architecture and literature. There are crosses on the churches, plastic Jesuses on the dashboard, exhortations on bumper stickers, Gideon bibles in the motel rooms, public prayers in the name of Jesus, Lord and Savior. Whether these signs help or hinder one’s religious response, they are ancient faith symbols.

The Christian creeds were formed in the early centuries of this era when the Roman Empire was disintegrating. There was a corrupt, crumbling bureaucracy within; the invading Vandals, Huns, Goths, were at the gates. It was a time of hopelessness. One need not wonder that dogma prescribed a supernatural scheme of salvation.

However, there is little wide-spread recognition that these doctrines and symbols relate to ages that are strikingly different in ways of thinking than in our modern world.

There is the process of evolution, not dreamed of when the creeds were hammered out 1500 to 1700 years ago. By stretching, for example, some think Genesis is poetic or symbolic [form] of expression, but the effort is laborious and unconvincing.

Modern physics and astronomy postulate a system entirely different from the ancient religious stories of the cosmos, no matter how poetic and lovely the latter may be.

Whether one calls it a “thin” theology or not, some of us attempt to comprehend religious truth in the light of modern thought. Not that modern thought is ultimate, for it is not exempt from decay and change in the same way as all that has gone by, been discarded, or modified.

One perennial theological deficiency is the temptation to confuse the beliefs of one’s own group with eternal truth. In our culture, I suppose the most obvious example of this is the Roman Catholic assertion and dogma that God does not permit the Church (the Pope) to teach error in matters of faith and morals. But there are many other instances of the deification of the power of a person or group, one teacher (theologian) - “Maybe that is what theologians are for – to tell us how we can be religious by doing what we would do anyway and believing what we would believe anyway.” (Paul Holmer, THEOLOGY TODAY). [marginal note: ask – does this make any substantive difference?]

Perhaps that has something to do with the proliferation of religious groups in this country. Someone gave me a clipping which stated that of the 1203 known religions discovered in research for “The Encyclopedia of American Religions,” 700 to 800 have been started since 1965.

These include such peculiar brands as “The Discordian Society,” worshiping the goddess of chaos and dedicated to anarchy, the Psychedelic Venus Church idolizing drugs and sex, and many others of varying notions, preachers, and theologies.

St. Paul (2nd Corinthians 4-7) made a penetrating observation, or rather, metaphor, when he wrote about faith: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” That is, the most devoutly held faith is limited by our experience in our time in our world. Theology is contained in an earthen vessel.

One of the noted Puritan preachers of Colonial times provided an apt illustration. In 1689, Cotton Mather, in a sermonic discourse on witchcraft, offered two kinds of proof that witches existed and practiced their malevolent ways. First, he cited the authority of scripture: Saul had sought out the witch of Endor who had supernatural powers to bring Samuel back from Sheol. Then Cotton Mather buttressed the witness of scripture with his own experience and cited testimony then current about witches. Cotton Mather’s voice was a strong influence in forming the social sanction which permitted the execution of alleged witches. In 1692 alone, 20 were executed, most of them by hanging. Today we would say that the theology which created acceptance for this hysteria and outrageous persecution was deficient indeed. It was enclosed in the earthen vessel of its times. Professor Georgia Harkness once wrote that the “differences between Calvinism and Lutheranism can be accounted for in no small measure by the fact that Calvin began his career as a lawyer and Luther as a monk.”

That our theology is carried in earthen vessels, subject to decay and change, conditioned by our background and needs are a limitation to any supposed absolutes of which Unitarians should be singularly aware. Here you need not agree with the pronouncements from a pulpit. Individual judgment is your privilege. Co-ercion of thought and imposition of ideas are intolerable among us. It goes for every one of us that no matter how persuasive the faith one cherishes individually, it is in an earthen vessel, a container shaped by one’s own inheritance, traditions, and experience; [it is] fire-glazed by one’s social conditioning.

Our theology (or philosophy) may be thin to those who cherish an unquestioning structure.

when the fact of pluralism is recognized, not only that one has the right and privilege of choosing among some 1,200 religious groups in this nation, but also, and more important, that there are great world religions whose origins, faith structures, and symbols began and grew quite independent of Judeo Christian Western religions. To assert only one way of salvation in this pluralistic world may be “thick” theology but seems a bit thick-headed to me.

From this it follows that we cherish, and ought to cherish, tolerance. A better attitude is acceptance even when most persons will not agree with our freedom principle for individual choice in religion.

We are heretics. Most persons do not recognize that it is a superior religious word because heresy comes from the Greek root, “to choose”. The reality is that many persons cannot endure the uncertainties of choice, and choose an over-dependence on authority.

I believe too that uncertainty grows. The more we discover about the macrocosm through the telescope and the microcosm through the microscope, the more mysterious the universe becomes and the more fragile seems our place in it. The more we ponder the process from Big Bang to single cell to creatures like ourselves, the more the mystery deepens. The ancient answers do not speak to my condition. But that should not dismiss the ultimate mystery of “why?” Nor shall I cease pondering. The most formidable question in philosophy is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

If a theology of search is thin, so be it. John Milton is often quoted: “The light which we have gained was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge... to be still searching what we know not by what we know, still closing up truth as we find it, this is the golden rule in theology as in arithmetic.”

Let me close with two contrasting views:

As has been pointed out, “The theologian is not simply giving a straight account of the history of ideas: he is at the same time judging those ideas from the standpoint of the religion from which he starts....”

“The theological historians have decided in advance what the end of history is, and then they show how all the events in history have necessarily led up to this end.” (Adcock, “Hibbert Journal,” Aut. 65).


Australian pastor Arthur Preston interviewed the great Scandinavian film actress Liv Ullman. The first cleric to do so before a microphone, he pressed her for some lay theology. Ullman: “I feel that there must be a meaning in our life. I feel if you thought of it you come into life with sealed orders and that God gave you those sealed orders. Your life in a way should be a striving, not so much to find out what those orders are, but to live as if it is important to live. Whatever you have inside, it is worthwhile trying to get out. [clipping from CONTEXT, Nov. 1, 1979, p. 4]

That too, I suppose, is a “thin” theology – but it suits my condition.

Theology is important. There is zest in the search – but it is an interpretation of life, not life itself. Live as if it were important to live. The real test of theology is conduct.

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