Joseph Campbell & Unitarian Universalism’s Spiritual Revival

Joseph Campbell & Unitarian Universalism’s Spiritual Revival March 26, 2009

For me the dialog between Unitarian Universalism and (Zen) Buddhism is the place where I have found my life, meaning, and direction. That is why I return over and over again to these two themes here in this blog, and elsewhere…

Today is the birthday of Joseph Campbell, and I consider him one of the reasons that dialog has been able to take place and be so fruitful.

Here’s why…

I suggest that Unitarian Universalism has two principal aspects, what I’d call mind and heart. The mind is what most of us might think of as our leading characteristic. But while that perspective reflects the dominant current for most of the twentieth century, it was not so in the past nor is it where we are today.

It appears to me that the current of institutional Unitarianism and now Unitarian Universalism has had four principle shifts.

Unitarianism emerged as an Enlightenment expression of Western religion. It was marked by a cool and critical analysis of religion starting at the end of the eighteenth century and flowering in the first decades of the nineteenth as what I’d call classical rational Unitarianism. Within a generation of its formation, however this rationalist religion was challenged by a mystical current which we call Transcendentalism. Within another generation or two the pendulum swung again, and what we now call Humanism became the dominant current (some would actually add two shifts in this timeframe as well, but, for my purposes, I’m leaving it at this…)

For most of the twentieth century Humanism was the dominant current of Unitarianism and its sister Universalism and certainly was at the heart of the consolidated Unitarian Universalist Association. Much good came with that. But, its shadow is a certain aridity, and that shadow certainly was there…

(Some would suggest a certain self-righteousness, as well. Particularly felt by those who have encountered the sting of backlash. But I demure, suggesting self-righteousness is a shadow of all fully felt opinions, spiritual or otherwise. Unbecoming, and needs to be watched for, but as common as rain to every human enterprise…)

Unitarian Universalism is a spirituality, a church, a faith movement, and in time that mystical current, both in a naturalistic and in a theistic way, began to re-emerge.

Now such things are organic and messy and its not really possible to mark these theological shifts within our Association in anything more than a poetic way. However, in movements there are usually handy reference points, markers that one can hold up to notice changes, even if in fact gradual and with many facets.

With all those caveats expressed, I suggest the emergence of the new spirituality within Unitarian Universalism can be marked at 1988 when Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell for a six part series on PBS. This series was called the Power of Myth.

In the ensuing decade it is possible there was a UU congregation that did not play those videos in their church basement and launch into passionate discussions, but I haven’t found any of them…

Now, again, one person or one event doesn’t do it. This really is a living tradition, and therefore is dynamic and messy. And, it isn’t uniform, there are congregations and many individuals who are extremely unhappy with the shift. But, as they say, shift happens. And within Unitarian Universalism, it has, and dramatically. In those fertile decades at the end of the twentieth century feminist theologies, the earth-centered and Buddhists of various sorts, together with miscellaneous others, began to find a home within Unitarian Universalism. And we moved from being a tradition that was jokingly said to believe in one God, at most, to something radical, occasionally foolish (how can something real not make many mistakes?), and at core, I genuinely believe, articulating a saving faith for our times.

So where are we today? As an institution our face is dramatically different than fifty years ago. If you look at the major congregations, almost every one is led by someone in the “spiritual” camp. The last Humanist president of the Association, William Schulz, left office in 1993. The intellectual and spiritual creativity within the Association is almost entirely (certainly not absolutely) going to the spiritual side of the movement.

I’m utterly fascinated watching where it is going, both as an observer and vastly more important, as a participant…

And, a very handy marker, is that interview and those basements where heated conversations sparked.

So, for so much, thank you, Joe.

And happy birthday!

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!