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Living with Theological Diversity

A paper for the Florida Unitarian Universalist Minister Association
October 1994 UUMA Institute
by the Reverend Mike Young, Minister,
First Unitarian Church of Honolulu

Indra's Net

Each fisher, with homemade net of differing mesh,
Catches life's experience sized
According to the holes between the knots.
Each fisher takes these net-caught meanings
For what fish there are. They call to one another,
"Your nets are wrong ! Those are not true fishes."
And they take the tales of one another's catches
For fish stories. They tell heroic sagas
Of the ones that got away; for, in truth,
There are uncounted fishes
That pass through all our nets, and fish so large
They tear our nets to tatters if we dare
To fish the depths. And how often
Do we carefully sein the long familiar shoals
And hang our nets to dry, proclaiming
"I have caught all the fish in the sea."
And who has not scoffed at the youth
With handline, the wrong bait,
And in inauspicious waters patiently awaiting
The fish that our nets tell us
Does not exist ? Words.
They are the nets we humans go a-fishing with.

-- Mike Young


When it comes to matters theological, we Unitarian Universalists tend to be like the college sophomores sitting around debating the existence of God. One student points with his metaphorical finger and says, "There ! That's what I mean." Where upon the others look at his finger and pronounce his manicure inadequate, his fingernail dirty, and he's using the wrong finger anyway.

But none of them looked where he was pointing.

Theological diversity: We say we affirm it; but we have little language for articulating that affirmation, few congregational patterns for reinforcing it and no coherent rationale for why we should. It often sounds like the affirmation of theological diversity is merely a declared truce which periodically breaks down, or a declaration that religious seriousness is actually trivial.

We once joked that the UUA was for people who had lost their religion but couldn't break the habit of going to church. And, indeed, a previous generation of UUs found in our brand of humanism a respectability for their rejection of traditional piety. They have in common with our current crop of Boomers the desire to be honest. But the Boomers are looking for a way to take the human religious experience with a seriousness that previous generations of Secular Humanists spurned.

My purpose here is two-fold: to articulate a coherent rationale for theological diversity persuasive to Secular Humanist, Liberal Christian and Neo-Pagan, etc. alike; and, in the process, to take theological conflict away from the controversialists as an occasion for disruption and discord in our congregations.

Let me state my conclusion at the outset:

The minimum position on theological diversity is tolerance. No one in our tradition has the job of determining whether another's religious opinions are right. This is essentially a rejection of the arrogance of saying not only that I am right, but it is my job to stand in judgement of the religious experience and expression of another. Membership in the religious community cannot be based upon correct opinions because, even if there are right and wrong opinions, there is no one in a position to execute that judgement.

A mid-position is affirmation. The affirmation is two-fold. First, we are affirming the value of the person irrespective of their opinions; and second, we are affirming the possibility of spiritual growth which can only occur if people are permitted to be honest. The only way to affirm spiritual honesty and spiritual growth is to refuse to make correct opinion a gate keeping function.

The full position goes farther. This position cherishes theological diversity as a positive good. Like the tolerators, it declines to sit in judgement. Like the affirmers, it honors spiritual honesty as the only way to grow. But it goes on to insist that only where honest diversity is valued, cherished and celebrated can the kind of communities that keep us alive and growing be created. Even one who is finally wrong may have a gift for me unavailable anywhere else.

When I speak of theological diversity I assume we are talking about religion at a deeper level than mere table manners; about religion that has some existential weight to it. Nor do I mean a diversity of "religions." A practicing Christian, Buddhist or Wiccan is certainly as welcome in our communities as a Secular Humanist. They are even welcome to proselytize, as far as I am concerned, so long as they do not attempt to close the door to another. But to understand theological diversity in this way is to miss the point of our heritage.

When I speak of theological diversity I mean, rather, a diversity of religious experience and expression. I am talking about a habit of mind reflected in institutional practice that listens behind the differing words that people use to give voice to the common human experiences.


Return in time with me and recall the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. The earth was in the center with the sun and moon circling. The stars were as if lights on a sphere rotating around the earth just slightly more than once a year so that the equinoxes precessed. Ptolemy knew all of this because he looked! It was based upon careful observation.

But the planets misbehaved. Each circled the earth as if fixed upon its own sphere. But then each, at a certain point, went retrograde; that is, went backwards. These Ptolemy called epicycles, like wheels within wheels of the turning cosmic engine. And again, all of this was based upon careful observation and measurement within the limits of the technology of the time.

I want to point out that Galileo pointed his new Dutch toy, the telescope, with the aid of Ptolemy's conceptual model and calculations !

Copernicus had the same observations to work with as Ptolemy. But he made a leap of imagination into a different conceptual model. He placed the sun at the center instead of the earth. Suddenly, the epicycles disappeared. Copernicus' conceptual model was MORE right than Ptolemy's; but it was, in fact, less useful for some important things. Because he assumed orbits to be circular (elliptical orbits awaited Kepler getting over his idealism) Copernicus still needed Ptolemy's conceptual model to aim his telescope! And neither conceptual model would have worked to guide a space craft.

Both the Ptolemaic and the Copernican conceptual models of the universe were empirical; that is, based upon observation. And both were wrong ! Yet, both were useful. Ptolemy's for pointing telescopes, and Copernicus' for finding a better, less wrong, conceptual model.

And, before we moderns get too self-satisfied, it is worth noting that WE have to keep checking things against the observational data, too, due to the mathematically intractable three-body problem. As a result of which, even Carl Sagan cannot predict what's going on among the dirty snow balls of the Saturnian rings.

Using this notion of relatively wrong but useful conceptual models, I want to draw some related distinctions in the realm of religion and theology.

Some religious ideas or conceptual models are based entirely on ideology; on what we may wish were true; on abstract ideas untied to observation or human experience. They may be fun as speculation. They may be appropriate propositions for testing. But, unless and until they tie back to human experience, they deserve the label: superstition. When absolutized – easy to do because they tend to be unfalsifiable – they become idolatrous. USF religion professor Darryl Fasching makes a nice distinction between those who are religious about religion VS those who are religious about life.

But much that gets labeled superstition derives from very careful observation and human experience. For example, much Shamanic practice is so derived; but in metaphor and image unfamiliar to us and from within a conceptual model most of us would find alien. We hear the unfamiliar language and assume superstition because we have not entered into the universe of discourse, have not courted the relevant experience, nor listened for the experience back of the language.

The human response to experience is to make a conceptual model, to construct a model of the universe that gives the relevant human experience a plausible and familiar context. But the experience is primary, not the model. And the experience is already experienced in metaphor and image. We, therefor, talk about all of this already at two levels of remove from the primary experience. This can be useful, if done in full awareness of what we are working with. But finally, it is almost inevitably wrong!

Theology, or religious language, is not only about the description of human experience. Its use and purpose is also to evoke particular human experiences. The first we have called religion. The second – the evocation of religious experience – we have lately been calling spirituality. But in neither case is it appropriate to get hung up debating the truth or falsehood of the conceptual models and metaphors. Remember those sophomores. Look where the finger points. Not at the finger.


Why should theological diversity be an issue for us ? What is it about our liberal religious heritage that keeps us trying to maintain an openness to diverse theological languages in our societies?

A major theme of the early Reformation history that gave shape to our Unitarian Universalist heritage had to do with the locus of religious authority. They wouldn't have said it this way then, but the core insight was that, if God exists, he knows whether you are putting him on. Only what you really do believe can make any difference; not what you are told to believe, or even think you should believe. If religious authorities attempt by however subtle means to coerce the statement of belief – even if by some miracle they are right – they are still suborning perjury. This is the religious center of our heritage of religious freedom.

Theological language speaks about human experience, there being nothing else humans can speak about. That human experience is mappable in (theoretically) an infinite number of ways. And, as the semanticists are fond of reminding us, the map is not the territory. No single map of human experience can catch all the nuances. All language is an abstraction from experience. Every abstraction leaves something out. Each is in-and-of-itself wrong, at least to the degree of being incomplete. The only complete mapping would be recapitulation.

Theological languages, images and symbols are metaphors, or at least – participate in the limits of metaphors. We humans have a tendency to draw inferences from our metaphors without bothering to check the inference against the experience back of the metaphor. Multiple metaphors tend to lead us into fewer inappropriate inferences.

Among the purposes of a religious community is to keep its members spiritually alive and growing. At least in our tradition, we do not assume that there is some "it" you can get and quit. Due to the limits of human knowing, it is always incomplete. Tomorrow's experience may prompt change. The community most likely to keep us alive and growing is not one in which we all agree; but rather one that tolerates, affirms, even cherishes the broadest, richest diversity. Not because there is no final truth, but because there may be and our own incompleteness suggests we may not have it yet. Not because it does not matter what you believe, but because it does and the only way to keep belief alive and growing is to be free to actually believe what you do believe. And even someone who is quite wrong may have something to teach me.

Not all theological language is equally adequate One is not just as good as another, and all are at least incomplete. Some metaphors are more apt than others. Each abstraction, in leaving something out, leaves out things of differing significance. What is left out at any given time as not relevant may, at a later time, with more experience, be seen as crucial.

Ideas, and the metaphors and images in which they are expressed, have a history. They accrue nuance and connotation not present in their original encoding of experience.

All theological languages are not alike, not parallel, do not encode experience in the same ways. For example, even within the same religious language system, devotional language and systematic theological language are often incommensurable. Much of the Humanist/Theist controversy derives from the failure of both to distinguish devotional from descriptive theological language. Poetry, myth, story and descriptive narrative are not the same in the ways in which they encode experience. Darwinian evolution and Genesis 1 are not alternative truth statements, one true and the other false; but alternative ways of communicating human experience, each appropriate to a different context.

To misunderstand the above is to turn religious statements into allegations about the ontological structures of the universe cut off entirely from the context, human and historical, in which they were made. The result is to mistake religious language for a one dimensional set of competing propositions. A mistaking of the human religious experience for ideology. This is the mistake of all fundamentalisms: Christian, Islamic, Secular Humanist, Neo Pagan, etc. alike.

All authentic religious language arises from and in response to human experience, and connects back to human experience as evocation, description, and/or etc. What is intended to be evoked is religious experience, not mere intellectual assent. In the Old Testament, the prophet Nathan confronts King David with a story about a rich man's abuse of power. David condemns the man and is then told by Nathan, "Thou art that man." What was evoked in David by the story was not merely an opinion on moral behavior but a mirror in which to see his own deep-self.

Where, therefor, the experience pointed to and intended to be evoked is what theological language is about, it is inappropriate to debate the truth or falsehood of the pointers. This does not mean that religious language is above critique. Only that no particular language is given privileged status merely because it is that particular language. We should, indeed, debate the adequacy of our language. Clear thinking will give us better description, more likely to be heard well and rightly, and better evocation of the intended experience.

My Aikido Master once told me, when I was resistant to the incessant bowing in the Dojo, "No one is my master. Anyone may be my teacher." Perhaps "may be" in both the permissive and the potential sense.

Incidentally, the UUA Pamphlet Series, "Can a (Christian, Theist, Atheist, etc.) Be a UU ?" misses the flavor of this entirely. At our best and clearest, we all draw from the second half of the UU Principles; not just any particular segment we wish.

Trust and commitment, what I take it we mean by "faith" (or, better, faithing), is not an unreasoned intellectual assent to ideological propositions. Religious surrender is not to a language or belief system, or it is mere credulity. Such surrender is to put my attention on that in my life where transcendence – the more-than-me and what pushes me to become more than me – is experienced as breaking in.

The Catholic heresy of Fideism is the notion that, if I commit myself to this and only this religious language, someday that language will evoke in me the correct religious experience which will validate my initial hope. The Catholic Church rightly branded it heresy. I, and they, do not say that this does not happen; only that its happening is not proof of the exclusive truth of the language. That it can happen with any powerfully evocative theological language only proves that the human mind can be powerfully moved by symbols.

The map is not the territory, and neither is the conveyance that carries us into the territory.


People come to us typically looking either for affirmation of their preferred theological language, a cure for their theological indigestion, or just a respite from the culture's theological imperialism. The leap of imagination we ask of them is quite literally unprecedented. No surprise, then, that we get "You can believe anything you want." Of course, you can't without totally trivializing both belief and religious experience. You must believe what you do believe. There is no other way to grow. It is also no surprise that we get an inappropriate absolutizing of whatever theological language helped free them from theological indigestion and imperialism. One result is the tendency for UU societies to self-select for a theological univocality that is both limiting and conflict producing.

At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa we have handled this potential problem not by making theological diversity a major theme, but by making it a part of the constant background against which all the other themes are played out. We include in that background the other related issues of diversity as well: racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The foundation for this was laid over a period of time. It is not something that can just be inaugurated one day and be expected to function flawlessly.

The UU Church of Tampa contains members whose preferred religious language is Liberal Christian, Secular or Religious Humanist, Buddhist, NeoPagan or Wiccan, and – in my case – Peter Pantheist. We regularly remind each other that, in using our own preferred religious language, we are not requiring the other to use or prefer it. We are, instead, inviting the other to listen back of our words for the common human experiences we share but express in differing ways. We have found that learning to hear each others' language has deepened and informed our own. So it is that we do not merely tolerate theological diversity. We cherish it and celebrate it.

We tend to doubt that anyone approaches religious maturity who has not learned to be – at least to some extent – religiously multilingual.

However, the above understanding runs so counter to the assumptions and expectations that our people bring with them from other traditions and even other UU congregations that we must remind ourselves of it frequently. We tell ourselves our family story regularly. We celebrate who we are and what we have covenanted in the process of our worship services, in sermons, in visitor information, in new member orientation, in our newsletter, etc. And we have little hesitation in gently reminding each other of it when one of us behaves inappropriately.

We try not to use language that we know will offend, for offense is not what we are trying to communicate. But we occasionally have to remind ourselves too that, when we respond with negative emotion at another's use of a word that is for them authentic, our own emotional response may be telling us where WE need to do some growing.

Elements of our regular Sunday morning service sound the themes regularly. The line under the picture of the church on the front of our order of service says, "You are welcome through these doors so long as you do not close them behind you to another." From that initial piece, a visitor is reminded of it constantly in little ways.

The introductory packet we send to all visitors sounds the theme again.

Sermons use multiple metaphors and look at religious issues as they are expressed in the differing languages of various traditions emphasizing the common human experiences behind the language. Again, this is not a major theme, but the context in which all other themes are handled.

Fundamentalisms – ours and theirs – are treated non adversarially. We listen for the human experiences that have rigidified them as well as the authentic religious experience back of them. And we use some gentle humor here on our own fundamentalisms, too. As long as I tease my Fundamentalist Neo Pagans and my Fundamentalist Secular Humanists even handedly it keeps us all lightened up.

In our Religious Education curriculum, both child and adult, the diversity themes recur. We are, after all, trying to introduce ourselves to the religious heritage of the species.

In the new member orientation the theme is hit much more explicitly, including the rationale for it, of which this paper is an expansion.

Our social action programs are mostly done in concert with other denominations and we are active in several inter-faith activities, further augmenting that background of openness.

Having laid and continuously maintained that groundwork, theological diversity happens with little controversy. A different quality of listening begins to occur. Offense is not taken or, when it is, is met with both empathy and limit setting. The classical fear – that "they" will take over – is seen not to be occurring. Our programing retains its diversity and people from all the various preferred theological languages are serving together on boards and committees. Just as we do not involve only gays in our programs on sexual orientation issues, we do not involve only Liberal Christians in our Bible courses, etc.

The result, of course, is that those who expect a UU congregation to be univocal – to speak with one theological voice – are selected out from the very beginning. Those who persist are greeted with patience, but their dis-ease is not permitted to prevail.


It is easy to get caught in the trap of behaving AS IF the clergy role is to articulate a coherent and internally consistent religious point of view. Few of us, I assume, would wish to claim this role; but the expectations of our parishioners and our own discomfort with appearing tentative and uncertain can so easily conspire to set us up for at least the appearance of playing that role.

When we get caught in that, the almost unavoidable implication to the congregation – and especially to visitors – is that the minister's preferred theological language IS Unitarian Universalism. Churches caught in this trap call ministers who preach the congregation's dominant theology. The new minister then tends to attract new members who agree with that theology, further reinforcing the univocal character of the congregation.

We ministers know this, so we tend to mask or blur our deviation in candidating; setting ourselves and our congregations up for conflict.

A major piece of my preaching role, as I see it, lies in the attempt to help my people find the language with which to articulate their own religious experience. This involves, among other things, detoxifying and rehabilitating the language of their own past, introducing them CRITICALLY to current popular and historical religious and theological language, and eliciting in them awareness of how language functions in giving them handles on their own experience.

I consider it a major teaching victory, for example, when I see a parishioner limiting the inferences they are willing to draw from an otherwise apt metaphor, or checking an inference drawn against the experience that spawned it. It is a victory for me that Bud has recovered an appreciation for his childhood Catholic language and the ability use it with care and critical insight. That Warren was able to remain on an Adult R.E. committee despite his conservatism because the rest of the members informed him that his point of view was needed and valued. Perhaps the biggest success is when I hear my people listening louder for the experience behind each other's preferred religious language.

There is a tension that nags at me. It is part of the disease that tends to set us up to be sucked into the role of articulator of the one true faith. That tension is between my teaching responsibility to my regular attenders and my responsibility as representative of UUism to visitors. I know that most visitors cannot but judge that one service for its level of theological comfort and inclusiveness for them. With my more or less regulars I can reinforce the cherishing of theological diversity occasionally and keep them brought along. They can see that I deal with the multi-lingual aspect of theological diversity even handedly over time. But to do that reinforcing often enough for every visitor would be to bore my regulars to beaten dead horse tears.

I try to make each service a thematic unity. Too many footnotes and asides, mixed metaphors and juxtaposed incommensurables, is undermining of the attempt to build a worship atmosphere and move it along. One answer is to use no language that any conceivable person could ever find offensive. And our people are at various levels of preparedness to take offense. But this would be to create a generic language that is, in fact, no one's language. All the generic language I've ever seen is all but lacking the power to evoke any response but boredom.

Our response to this tension too often is to give in to having univocal congregations – Christian, Theist, Humanist, Pagan, etc. – leaving diversity to exist between congregations rather than within them. The questions asked of ministers and search committees by the Department of Ministry reflect this assumption. Yet, to do this is to lose virtually all that is cherishable in religious diversity and leave our movement a crazy quilt of mini- quasi orthodoxies.

The only alternative I see is to accept the ambiguity of trying to live in that tension. We try to minimize this by all of the pieces I have mentioned in laying and maintaining the back ground of cherishing theological diversity. So far, it seems to work. One test will be what happens to it when I am gone and another minister succeeds me.

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