Professor York Looks for the Devil at the Unitarian Universalist Church

Professor York Looks for the Devil at the Unitarian Universalist Church February 11, 2012

Unitarianism has a great noble history. It’s about a strong affirmation of the oneness of God, only it just got eaten up by a kind of liberal humanism, and as a result, I think it’s an extraordinarily uninteresting group. Stanley Hauerwas

Sort of a review of “Unitarian Universalism: The Boring-ality of Evil” in Tripp York’s The Devil Wears Nada: Satan Exposed (2011, Cascade Books, Eugene)

So, there I was minding my own business when out of the blue comes a note to my blog email address, a breezy note without salutation inviting me to receive a copy of a new book if I would promise to review it, positive or ill. Because it lacked a salutation at the beginning I thought maybe it was a bulk mailing. On the other hand the note spoke of Unitarians. And, on still one more hand in it he claimed to have read my blog and found it interesting.

I felt a response was in order and wrote back that the last couple of books people had sent me to review, I hadn’t. And, well, the truth was, now that I had now fallen into recidivism, I would likely just continue down that dark path accumulating books unread and so far as the publishers would be concerned, vastly worse unreviewed.

I figured that would be that.

Turned out the note was indeed written by Professor York and he wrote back. The conversation continued. He was witty and a fun correspondent. Along the way I mentioned my next book was due out in September. I seem to be mentioning that in a lot of situations. He replied saying he’d buy it (okay, he said pick it up. But he’s a Mennonite and I figured he didn’t mean he’d steal it) And, also, in his own book he claimed he wrote controversial things about UUs. The tease.

I decided, that while I couldn’t promise I’d write anything, I’d spend my own twenty bucks and buy Tripp’s book. (we’re now official Facebook friends, so I figure first names…)

Just got it. I’ve held it in my hand, looked at the front and back covers, I read the front matter, and then went directly to the chapter on Unitarian Universalism.

Now, one of the reasons I was reluctant to promise anything was that the premise is his quest to understand the divine by a look at the devil. Not exactly my cup of tea. He makes it a personal quest, interviewing various about their various opinions. Unitarian Universalists were simply one stop on the trip, bunched up together with Druids and Satanists in a section called “Denying the Devil.” Oh, and there’s that “Boring-ality of evil” thing. Sort of telegraphs his conclusions, I suspect.

Should that not be enough the quote with which I open this entry is from the lead to his chapter specifically on UUs. That “extraordinarily uninteresting?” Well, that’s what I feel when people want to talk about the devil. Boooring. I’m not vastly more interested in God, for that matter. From where I come, these words mostly, although admittedly not exclusively, stand as projections of human identity onto the cosmos. Not just boring, but deluded, and, I believe, dangerous.

Still, I’ve heard it said one of the more important things about interfaith conversation is that we rarely have anything in common. Often nothing. And nothing is a rich and interesting place. Among other things having to confront each other might actually push each of us to something worthwhile, a bit richer place than we find on our own. In fact that’s why, I believe, some churches are adamantly opposed to any sort of interfaith dialogue, and others consider it permissible only with future conversion as the real goal.

As I said the book just showed up. I had just gotten back from church where I’d conducted a memorial service for the brother of the close friend of a beloved member of the congregation. These days I normally only do services of this sort for people I know, members of my congregation or their close relatives. I did this one as a favor to a beloved member of our church. And I was glad to do it.

As a result I’d spent a big part of the last couple of days immersed in the life of that person, talking with the family about him, a lawyer and general do-gooder, a lifelong bachelor who doted on his nephews and nieces and their various broods. I also think it was good for me to have to spend time with folk for whom the Republican party was the party of all that is good and decent, and where any snark on my part would be considerably past inappropriate. We and I’d been picked to do the service because even though he was a life-long Congregationalist, they wanted to honor the fact that at heart he really was a Unitarian, if not a Unitarian Universalist…

That done, and not obligated to prepare a sermon for Sunday (our community minister will be preaching for the first time. My only anxiety there is, based on what she did with the Christmas Eve late service homily, I believe she’s going to be a knock your socks off preacher. Incumbents don’t tend to like such behaviors in their institutional juniors.) I decided to poke about and see what was what.

Tripp York is a Mennonite, author of the blog the Amish Jihadist and a professor in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Western Kentucky University. He did an MTS at Duke and earned his doctorate at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, a Methodist identified school in the Chicago area that has a good rep. He has written a bunch of books. He is also a dedicated skateboarder, although that doesn’t appear in his official biographical materials.

Looking at his blog I suspect he may have read entirely too much theology for his own health.

Despite the years of academic red-eying, he writes well. He is funny. He has heart.

And he doesn’t care much for Unitarian Universalism. He allows as how he tends to like us as people more than many other groups taken in batches. Still, we’re heretics, and he means it when he uses the word. Think whiff of brimstone…

The chapter turns on an interview with a UU minister. His unnamed minister isn’t skewered too badly. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t meant as a straw man, just a real living person saying real things. As a couple of the things he says the man said go on a bit, I’m assuming he used a tape recorder at the interview. He does make the poor guy a stand in for us in a semi-official sort of way. Something he probably can’t avoid, but ultimately not particularly fair, either.

Pretty close to the beginning of the chapter the minister pretty much wrote off the whole idea of a devil. Tripp seemed to find the minister’s dismissal of the idea of a devil as pure nonsense something of a conversation stopper. Now, Tripp was being snide at that passage so it was hard to follow his, Tripp’s underlying point, but which I think was that because lots of people believe in devils it was something, maybe actually disrespectful to say outright that the devil was like Santa Claus, only with bad breath. Okay, I added the bad breath part.

(I figured he should get points for not suggesting the Christian God to most Christians is Santa Claus. Something I’ve noticed. But, nope…)

Tripp had already thrown out the old saw about the devil’s first line of attack is to get people to think he doesn’t exist. Of course this is an amazing assertion, useful in winning a debate, maybe, but of little use to someone actually trying to find a truth. Apparently the idea the devil doesn’t exist just isn’t going to be part of the deal in this volume. Only something druids or Satanists or Unitarians would even consider. Now, this sense I have is derived from reading a single chapter, but in that section that view rings loud and clear.

And it was a conversation stopper.

I don’t quite understand why Tripp didn’t pursue the questions of evil for nontheists and agnostics and perhaps people who have some belief in a deity but not in a devil, which are probably the majority opinions among Unitarian Universalists today. Most of us believe in actual evil in the world, just not personifications of it. Some pushing in that area could be good for all of us.

But he didn’t. And so ended the devil part of the chapter.

But the chapter didn’t end there. Tripp shifted gears touching upon the basic theological stances of Unitarian Universalists in a couple of areas. To be fair, I think he was trying to be fair.

He did put his finger on what I’d agree is a problem that is commonly held among us. Which is that the whole matter for UUs often turns on the individual. I think this isn’t examined closely enough by us, certainly not by our professionals, the clergy. And it leads to a host of confusions…

Tripp slipped into a litany of individualist sources for us Kerouac, Whitman, Emerson, Twain. He then slipped in Rand. Rand is the final expression of individualism gone cancerous. And he either didn’t know, or didn’t seem to care that Rand is a highly controversial figure within the UU world. Certainly someone I froth about here at this blog every once in a while.

Based within this sense of individualism, the unnamed minister was an advocate for the position that the individual conscience is enough. Tripp felt that that wasn’t enough, we need an outside perspective to measure ourselves against.

I agree with that point so far as it goes. But I think the deal is much more complex.

My understanding is that the person herself, himself, myself is incredibly important, precious. But, by no means the measure of all things. The individual is a construct, existing for a fleeting moment, and when the conditions that constructed her or him or me change, well…

One can argue, and maybe I do, that the individual is the eyes and the hands of God. The universe is big, it is complex, it is seriously weird. And, for reasons that I cannot fathom, the person emerges in it with an amazing ability to see and to know. Astonishing. Wonderful. Amazing. The eyes of the universe, turned upon the universe, the eyes of God turned upon God. And there are also those hands.

For me, as those who read my blog entries probably know all too well I find a theological perspective located in our Unitarian Universalist statement of principles and purposes. What Tripp found some of us do hold, but none are required to hold, was “a general concern with the rights and dignity of all people.” He sees it as sweet but solipsistic. And I know many of us in fact hold this position. It sort of looks like that minister he interviewed does. But it’s not my theological perspective. Nor is it the necessary stance within our community.

The individual is precious and unique, which is expressed in the first of the seven UU principles. But, it is meaningful only within the context of the seventh, pointing to how we are all inextricably bound up together in a vast web of interdependence.

For me this is the great intuition. It reveals our path as one, I call the way of the wise heart. From this insight a host of things follow, including how to use those hands in the wake of what the eye perceives.

But how to test, how to make sure we’re not mistaken? If the Bible isn’t the “outside” authority, what is? For us, for me, what prevents solipsism, and the cascade of sorrows that follow such a perspective?

For this Tripp’s analysis turned on UUs non-creedal stance, something that he finds less than useful. He goes right for the creed of noncreedalism and pointed out that honoring all religions is in fact honoring none, as it is denying each one’s claims to exclusivity.

True ‘nuff. And not really the deal.

To Tripp’s question about what we really think about other religions, and why should it be a common trope among us to display all the religion’s symbols, my contention is that most religions contain all that is necessary to salvation. (I’m not positive about one or two, though probably them, too…) But – whatever else, that none of them have a monopoly on the healing of the human heart, or providing useful direction for us on our way between life and death. In fact, most of them have more crap about them than truth. Maybe all of ‘em…

But I wasn’t asked.

And I think Tripp missed the point, and who knows, maybe the minister he interviewed missed the deeper point as well. We reject creeds as tests for membership among us. What we have instead of creed is covenant.

We’re a way of life.

We try to actually include anyone who wishes among us. The reality is we do have a shape which people can describe, and so we’re going to be seriously uncomfortable for people who want a clear and unambiguous faith stance. We see the world and ourselves as moving targets. Even truth is mutable. And our knowing is, as well.

It’s all in flux. Pay attention.

For us paying attention is the invitation to correcting and growing deeper. And it comes in our covenant of presence.

It can be a powerful force. I’ve seen people use it to great effect. I’ve witnessed lives transformed.

Now, I have other touchstones in my own life, but I’m arguing that the touchstones found in contemporary Unitarian Universalism are enough. Unitarian Universalism contains all that is necessary to salvation.

And Tripp does not get that. Or, does not seem to in this chapter.

So, what’s my take away?

Having just come from a funeral, I find myself wondering if it is all that useful to people at the hard moment.

One does have to be careful about mistaking stones for bread when the hungry are asking to be fed…

But, I’ve not read enough of the book to say too much.

What I think I can safely and accurately say, is if you want to know what a serious contemporary young anabaptist theologian thinks about God and the devil in a breezy and inviting and ironic way, this is probably your book.

I might even go back and read the rest of it.


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