Systematic Theology 101

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, The Rev. William Sinkford, has asked the members of the association to begin a search for a language of reverence. The purpose for this search is purported to be an attempt to improve communications with people of other faith traditions, and to encourage us to look more deeply at what it means to participate in our liberal religious tradition.

When we consider the language of our seven principles, found most easily inside your order or service, it seems to me that there is definitely a sense of reverence found in those words. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant” — and what kind of word is “covenant?”
How often do you use it in your daily conversations? The most likely place to find this word is in real estate transactions. Otherwise it is seldom used.

Our denomination is based on the concept of covenant. We covenant together as member congregations to form our association. Without this action there would be no Association, and by this time there would probably be no congregations.
Within our congregation, we sign the book of membership and by doing so enter into a covenant of membership and support, hopefully to include the goals of the seven principles. Without this action, our congregation could not exist. We are dependent upon the informal covenant of membership and friendship that we hold as the basis for our coming together.

Considering the seven principles as a guideline for what we will do together, we discover that one value seems to tie them all together. That value is relationship.
During my preparation for this sermon, I learned that my personal theology is largely based on the ultimate value of relationships, to the universe, to my family, to my liberal religious faith and to the parts of my inner being that at times seem to be in conflict with each other. Were I a serious scholar, I could take this idea and create a system of theology around it. I could look at the considerations necessary to a systematic theology and find the ways relationship answers the questions that theology proposes.

Unitarian Universalism stands in the Judeo-Christian tradition and if you read further on down the page on the order of service where you found the principles you will find the sources of our “living tradition.”
The first source is the “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” As you read on through the sources you find mention of the rich repository of human wisdom from which we deepen our understanding.

Part of this repository of wisdom is the classical understandings of theology of the Catholic and Protestant churches, which has changed very little over time. Certainly there have been small movements such as Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Process Theology, but the foundational ideas about God, salvation, the nature of humanity, and so on remain static.

It is interesting that today is December 7, that I have just referred all of you to the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism, and now I want to share with you the seven questions that are covered by systematic theology. If I were the suspicious type, I might be concerned about what happens tonight at 7 o’clock.

Question number one is “What is the nature of God?”
One challenge of being a Unitarian Universalist is that those unfamiliar with our church often ask us a slightly different question without first sharing their theology. We tend to judge all those who ask the question “Do you believe in God?” by assuming we know what they are asking. We might benefit by asking “What do you mean by God?” Our religious pluralism allows each of us to develop our own answers to the question “what is the nature of God?” It is possible to speak to this question within the context of our faith. Of course there is no single answer, but if we are trying to create a personal theology we need to think about what is ultimate for us, what we think about a possible source of creation, the transcendent, the good, or my favorite – that beyond which I cannot think.

After we determine this starting point, our theological quest would move on to consider the nature of humanity. Our views on this issue will depend largely on our starting point, our view of the nature of God or our ultimate value.
The Judeo-Christian tradition in which we stand tends to think of humans as born in a state of sin and saved by the grace of God. Both Unitarians and Universalists have rejected this idea. Creating a systematic theology would require a look at the situation of humans. Are we born good? How do we understand the problem of evil? What encourages humans to both do and be good? Can we be good without the fear of eternal punishment?

The third question of systematic theology is how do we achieve salvation? Most of us no longer fear eternal suffering in hell and notice that we have the power to turn our lives into hell on earth. The question for us may be how can I make my journey through life in such a way that I have some assurance that I will have few regrets at the end? Is our salvation found in community? Is it found in generosity of spirit?

Connected with the question of salvation is the consideration of what happens at the “end times?” This fourth question deals with both the end of each individual’s life and the final exit of humanity from the earth. Is there life after death? Is there heaven and/or hell? Will humanity continue on some other level of existence? How do our answers to these questions affect the way we look at our lives here on earth? Our Universalist tradition teaches that all of humanity will return to the creator. We can’t know what this means in a technical sense, but their theology was that a loving God, whom they believed in, would not give out eternal punishment for finite sins. Part of systematic theology must include some consideration of these difficult questions.

The fifth question is one of knowledge about the first four questions and how it was revealed to us. Revelation is explained in any system of theology. The early church leaders decided all truth had been revealed and was contained in the Bible. Many religious people today hold this to be true. They claim to live their lives according to the Bible, dependent upon its teachings for making all the decisions they must make in their lives. It seems to me that they practice a certain selectivity in what parts of the Bible they follow, and ignore the context of some verses. This kind of Bible theology gives authority to the book and to the leaders who claim understanding of the verses. In general, UUs hold no teachings as absolute, and most of us operate from the position that truth is still being revealed to us. What would this mean in a system of theology? How do we make decisions? When, where and how do we get in touch with the source of truth, if we hold something as the source?

The sixth question is what is the purpose of the church? For early Christians, the church was the community, and provided for the needs of its members. Later the church became the giver of the sacraments and held the power to grant or refuse salvation to its members, often for a price. After the reformation, the Protestant churches played a different role. What is the purpose of our congregation? Why do we come together as a faith community? How does your participation in this congregation influence your life?

The seventh and final question of systematic theology is the explanation of the nature of the Trinity, the relationship between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It is important to remember that this is not Biblical, and was not completed in theory until nearly six centuries into the common era. The important conversation in the creation of a Unitarian Universalist theology would be based on the answer to the first question, the foundational question, the nature of the ultimate, God, the good, the highest value. A recent advertising campaign for UUism suggested the three values, respect, freedom and justice as a new trinity.

Paul Tillich wrote three volumes of Systematic Theology in the 20th century. To fully understand his work would require more than the one semester I spent on his writing in my undergraduate years. Luckily, he has written some small volumes that are more accessible, one which I used in my homily on November 2.
As I understand Tillich, the starting point of his theology, his answer to the first question as to the nature of God, is that there is a God beyond the Christian concept of God, which he calls “the ground of being.”

Tillich suggests that we develop a faith in being itself, in our being, in our experience. He calls this “the absolute faith which says Yes to being without seeing anything concrete which could conquer the nonbeing in fate and death.”
This is a theological statement based on considerations of several of the questions I listed above. It includes a statement about the nature of God, which he calls “being itself.” It includes a statement about the nature of humanity, that it is important for us to develop a faith “in our being, in our experience.”

It includes a statement about how we can achieve salvation, “by saying Yes to being.” What happens at the end times? He asserts that humanity can see nothing concrete “which could conquer the nonbeing in fate and death.” While there is nothing here which speaks to the nature of revelation directly, I would argue that he puts his faith in our experience. We can infer from what he says that the purpose of the church would be to provide a place where we could develop such a faith in being itself.

If being itself is the ground of our experience, then we might also infer that there is a unity in being, which is foundational to much of modern theology and especially to the faith of the transcendentalist Unitarians of the nineteenth century who were responding to the work of Schleiermacher, the German theologian.

As I think about this, I wonder why it was necessary for Tillich to write three volumes to elucidate something that is easily apprehended in a paragraph.
Part of the answer is that his theology challenged the writings of those who went before him. The rest of the answer is that I have chosen to understand this quotation from Tillich’s book, The Courage to Be, to fit my own personal theology and probably have done some small amount of interpretation.

Several decades ago, the Rev. Richard Gilbert developed a curriculum for Unitarian Universalists titled “Building Your Own Theology.” Each of us can write our personal theology. I think it is important for us to take time to deepen the basis of our personal faith and the religious quest that we are completing during our lives. Learning where we find the ultimate, the values, the sources of challenge and comfort in our lives can be of great personal importance. The language used by the predominant religious culture here in Kansas can sound dogmatic, which is another kind of theology. Having a theology of my own allows me to carry on a conversation if I choose, and fortifies my position as a liberal religious person.

To begin our own personal theologies, we might consider a suggestion made by one of my colleagues that characterizes the undertaking. “Theology can correctly be understood to mean, simply, the exposition and explication of those matters taken to be of utmost importance to a religious community, tradition, or individual.” What is of utmost importance to you? Where would you begin your theological thinking and writing?

You will recall that I noted a common value that seems to tie our seven principles together, that of relationship. And certainly the traditional theologians have discussed human relationships with the source, the creator, the ultimate.
My theology does extend beyond planet Earth to include the universe, but I cannot find a way to think of something outside the universe that is the creator of it all.

Tillich suggests, in my interpretation, that we develop a faith in “being itself.”
His suggestion combined with a lifetime of seeking a way to understand my place in the scheme of things has contributed to my personal theology. I answer the first question, what is the nature of the ultimate, by reporting that I feel upheld by the universe. My view is that the universe is benevolent and that our planet provides for all my needs. One wag in the Jamestown, New York church where I did my internship year, accused me of “believing” this. At the time, I protested that it was only a reflection of my feeling, my experience of life and nature and relationships. But I suppose I could safely say that I do believe I am upheld by a benevolent universe.

My personal theology must begin right here with my relationship of the universe as that which is ultimate for me, my direct experience of that “transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

The next question for me to consider in my quest for a personal systematic theology is “what is the nature of humanity.”
Stay tuned.